In 1938, William Cooper, an elderly Yorta Yorta walked with a group of his people to the German consulate in Melbourne to protest against the persecution of Jews. They were sent away but nearly 80 years later playwright Elise Hearst learned of Cooper’s bravery and set out to write a play with one of his descendents, Andrea James.
The play is staged – confusingly – on a basketball court. Through a series of deftly handled shifts in time and place, we see three narratives play out: William Cooper’s life, the tale of how Hearst’s’ grandparents escaped Europe and came to Australia, and the story of writing the play itself. Given these many shifts, I couldn’t for the life of me work out why the play was set inside a gymnasium, except for the rather heavy-handed metaphor of a game of dodge ball. A simpler set would have allowed for the audience to meet the play with their own imaginations, rather than having to awkwardly pretend we were not still on a basketball court.
Some of the intertwines are more compelling than others, but I expect this is simply a matter of personal taste. I found the narrative focussing on the relationship between the writers (James and Hearst play themselves) and their overcoming of the challenges inherent within the writing of the piece to be the most interesting. It is the most fascinating to me because it highlights the challenges one faces when creating art that engages with a community that is not your own. While at times I felt a little bashed over the head with cultural politics, it made for thought-provoking viewing.
Hearst and James are joined in the cast by Kevin Kiernan-Molloy, Shari Sebbens and Guy Simon, who are each kept busy in multiple roles. As an ensemble they worked well together and handled each shift with clarity and commitment. Paige Rattray’s direction imbues the piece with a lovely light and shade; the humour that punctuates the piece offers a welcome relief from the contemplation of the horrors inflicted on both Jews and Indigenous Australians throughout history.
This is a play about the creation of history – of people, of cultural groups, of nations – and how so often that history is skewed towards the interests of white men. When a story is so intertwined in the fabric of our existence, and yet so ignored, how can we go about bringing this to the stage without trampling on a culture that has already been so horribly persecuted? Bright World tackles this question head-on, and sometimes we won’t like what we see. But it needs to be seen, and this play demands that we pay attention.