Performed by moonlight on the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan, WA Youth Theatre Company’s BESIDE is an unforgettable immersive theatre experience about the past and the future, Claire Trolio writes.
BESIDE, WA Youth Theatre Company in collaboration with the National Trust of WA ·
Peninsula Farm, 24 February, 2021 ·
We meet in Maylands just after dusk, moonlight glinting off the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River). It’s land known to the Whadjuk Noongar people as Wu Rut Woorat, otherwise called Peninsula Farm in reference to its history as one of the Swan River Colony’s first farms.
We’re there for the world premiere of BESIDE, a site-specific piece of performance theatre by WA Youth Theatre Company (WAYTCo). Under the expert guidance of artistic director James Berlyn, the company has constructed an unforgettable piece of work.
Those lucky enough to have experienced WAYTCo’s award-winning show, REST
(Fringe World 2019 and 2021), at the East Perth Cemeteries will be familiar with the premise. Audience members gather at a place of historical significance, where they are immersed in the site’s stories and history. Once again, WAYTCo treads the tightrope between history lesson and theatre, giving the dead a voice.
BESIDE is set on the banks of the river, and the audience is divided into thirds to see the show at different spots and at different times. There’s a choose-your-own-adventure-style farmhouse exploration, a riverside presentation, and an intimate, storytelling encounter with individual young performers at the Peninsula Farm café. A fusion of theatre, dance, puppetry and song, with a slew of voices and multiple performance spaces – it’s a colossal undertaking, but it pays off.
Peninsula Farm is important in our colonial history, but in keeping with the theme of this year’s Perth Festival, bilya (river), the Derbarl Yerrigan and the people who live around it are the main inspiration for BESIDE.
Noongar tales are front and centre in two of our three segments. We’re treated to three Dreamtime stories, delivered with the permission of elders, and Noongar language is used frequently throughout the entire production. We’re gently reminded of the horrors inflicted upon the traditional owners of Boorloo (Perth) and educated about the effects that colonial invasion has had on the river. BESIDE’s Noongar cultural advisers, Della Rae Morrison and Maitland Schnaars (who also perform in it) and Ian Wilkes, have ensured a culturally sensitive and truly collaborative work is presented.
All this is coupled with a magnificent, soaring soundscape created by Rachael Dease and Morrison, who is also a choral composer. I could listen to it all night.
BESIDE speaks directly to our eco-anxiety as a community, impressing upon the audience the need to fight climate change with urgency and certainty. It acknowledges people’s feelings of futility and insignificance, but is ultimately hopeful: there must be a better way.
The WAYTCo performers are a proudly diverse bunch of young people, and their unique stories form a major part of how this work is devised. Decked out with fairy lights, the café lawn is set up for audience members to sit in pairs and take part in three intensely personal interactive encounters, each with a WAYTCo performer. I reckon I got lucky with the trio of Kaitlyn Rudolphy, Oliver Charlton and Crystal Nguyen, each fervent and generous, but I suspect everyone else might have felt the same towards their own triad.
Wu Rut Woorat is just down the road from my house. I knew there was a big old building there where they put on high tea, but I hadn’t thought much about what that building was or how it came to be. BESIDE picks us up on that blindness, encouraging us to ask questions and take action.
We can’t deny the past, but it can help us decide how we want the future to look.
Pictured top: The WA Youth Theatre Company in ‘BESIDE’, on the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan. Photo: Jess Wyld
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