Set on Big Dog Island in Tasmania, Nathan Maynard’s The Season is an understated, astutely observed familial tale of the Duncans that spans generations and cultures, skimming across personal histories intertwined with the cultural practice of mutton-birding.
The grounding force of the play is the tenderness between matriarch Stella Duncan (Tammy Anderson) and her husband Ben (Kelton Pell). As their family re-groups for this hands-on holiday, Stella and Ben’s manifest joy in each other’s presence functions as the bedrock for the strong family ties we bear witness to which bend but never break.
The narrative flows forward in glimpses that reflect the mundane excitement of re-discovering ritual as lived on a day-to-day basis. The dramatic tension and conflicts between people manifest as brief flickers that flare up and retract as quickly as they appear – a familiar feeling to anyone from big, loose, loving families. The refreshingly light touch with which all these little personal dramas are handled gorgeously reflects the strength of the familial bond the holds them all together, despite grating sibling camaraderie and the suffocating pressure of long-held secrets.
Maynard nails the softness of this drama with ease—a family gathers, life passes—and in that passing we are offered the chance to savour the artfulness with which the Duncans are observed. Big themes are touched on with the same lightness that they are lived through: not simplistically but with a practically of misunderstandings and acceptance. Questions and arguments about assimilation, heritage, land ownership flare up as points of tension, but it’s exhilarating to see the practicalities of navigating the push and pull between politics peacefully taking precedent.
Where The Season struggles is during moments of comedy that feel at odds with the deftness of the relationships between the Duncans. Marlene (Lisa Maza), Stella’s sister, has a long-standing affair with her brother-in-law’s arch-rival Neil Watson (Trevor Jamieson). What could have been a breath-taking arc of Marlene coming to terms with not needing him takes an absurd, slightly jarring turn. Watson’s exaggerated clowning throughout the production distracts from Marlene and Neil’s relationship, as well as Lou’s monologue (one of already few moments we get to spend with her).
However, the play paradoxically gains its strength from how seriously it takes every family member’s arc, giving each Duncan space to share with the audience; The Season is simultaneously bogged down by that very quality as every single family member’s woes and protests are given the degree of space to be voiced, leaving a few characterisations sparser.
The costumes are generally casual and effective, and a few pants-related gags are spectacularly charming. Meanwhile, the set is a tricky arrangement of angles and cloth which creates a depth to the stage that’s easy on the eyes and allows for a fabulous takeover of the backstage area. The dinner table, established and maintained as Stella’s domain, is tucked in a downstage corner that re-affirms her role as the glue of the family. There’s a funny, clever moment where she spends the morning in bed, and Maynard touches lightly on a critique of the role of masculinity within the context of the Duncan family. The haplessness of the younger two generations of men in caring for themselves is simultaneously hilarious and irritating, highlighting a tension between the (rightful) pride with which the younger generations of a culture driven to the brink of cultural extinction by force and brutality can be nurtured back through the strength, love and care of the matriarchal figures… who can simultaneously be taken for granted, expected to provide care eternally and consistently.
The play also touches on the tension between Aboriginal land rights and the maintenance of cultural knowledge, and non-Aboriginal sustainability measures. An unexpected queer arc also lands gently and warmly amongst these questions, illustrating the ease with which The Season finds the push and pull between past, present, and future, successfully delivering an invitation to closely engage with the hope of the past’s knowledge being handed into the present. The Season is a joyous tale that revels in openness about sexual expression and love, contributing to a warm and close consideration of how traditions play out in a contemporary landscape, navigate boundaries of generations and cultures with pride and skill.