Haunting new play is a must-see

23 July 2021

Weaving together thrilling ghost stories and chilling accounts of WA’s brutal colonial past, Black Swan State Theatre Company’s York tells a tale we all need to hear, says Bruce Denny, in his debut review for Seesaw.

York, Black Swan State Theatre Company in collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company ·
Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA, 21 July 2021 ·

Inspired by real accounts and recollections of the old – and allegedly haunted – York Hospital, Black Swan State Theatre Company’s latest production, York, is both a sensational ghost story and a devastating history lesson about the colonial injustice and barbarity that has taken place on Ballardong boodjar.

Jo Morris as Mrs Potts and Shakira Clanton as Mrs Campbell, with their lively charges. Photo: Philip Gostelow

Presented in collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company, York has had a longer than planned gestation period, thanks to COVID-19. Though undoubtedly frustrating, the highly polished product suggests that the delays may have been to the benefit of the work.

A two-act play, written by Wilman Noongar writer/actor/curator Ian Michael and The Last Great Hunt’s Chris Isaacs, York cleverly brings together four stories that traverse time, intersecting in one location – the hospital building and its surrounds.

Under the direction of BSSTC Artistic Director Clare Watson and Whadjuk and Ballardong actor/director Ian Wilkes, this epic tale is told upon Zoë Atkinson’s multi-level set, its sombre wooden tones unfolding darkly from kitchen to attic. Its sheer proportions – evocative of the Avon Valley itself – are impressive, and though the unrelenting gloom may seem a tad bland at first glance, it quickly exerts a chilling power. Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting and Dr Clint Bracknell’s sound and composition designs skilfully enrich and manipulate the atmosphere, evoking emotions that range from amusement to terror.

Each playing multiple roles, the nine cast members move between their respective characters deftly and seamlessly. It’s a credit to all actors that, though switches are often lightning quick, transformations are absolute and the audience has no trouble staying with the story.

Particularly noteworthy on opening night was the youngest cast member, Noongar actor Benjamin Narkle (14), who held the stage impressively amongst his more experienced peers. He will be alternating in the role with his brother, Jacob.

A matron descends a staircase in the semi-darkness. The wall behind her is made of pressed tin.
The sombre tones of Zoë Atkinson’s set exert a chilling power. Pictured is Alison Van Reeken as Matron Roslyn Bell. Photo: Philip Gostelow

The play opens light-heartedly, with couple Rosy (Alison Van Reeken) and Emma (Shakira Clanton) moving into their new home, the old hospital. As their very relaxed removalists, Maitland Schnaars and Ben Mortley bring more than a touch of comedy. It’s the entry of the self-described clairvoyant neighbour, Shauna (Jo Morris), that sets us off on the wild ride of the ghost story.

Maitland Schnaars is dressed in ragged, dirty clothes. His hair is shaggy and he has a long beard. He is mid-speech, one arm slightly raised.
As Barrabong, Maitland Schnaars is compelling. Photo: Philip Gostelow.

Story two travels back to 1985 and the old hospital is serving as dormitory-style accommodation for a visiting cub scout group. Led by Mrs Campbell (Clanton) and Mrs Potts (Morris), the lively charges are portrayed with wonderfully youthful energy by Isaac Diamond, Ben Mortley, Benjamin Narkle, Sophie Quin and Elise Wilson. Schnaars continues to entertain as the cantankerous caretaker, while the goings on of the troop teeter between hilarity and horror right up to interval.

In Act II the play takes a distinctly darker turn, back to the aftermath of World War I, and the grim reality faced by the returning soldiers the hospital houses. It’s here that we encounter the racism of the time, beginning with Ballardong yorga Irene Campbell (Clanton) being denied treatment for her son Lucas (Narkle) because they are Black, and ending in chilling violence.

The final scene is based on the true story of Sarah and Mary Ellen Cook, a mother and baby murdered in York, and Doodjeep and Barrabong, the innocent Ballardong men who were unjustly tried and found guilty of the brutal crime. Standing across the apron of the stage, the actors take turns relating the terrible tale. At the centre literally and metaphorically, Schnaars, as Barrabong, is compelling.

There is something almost poetic in the horrific telling of this final tale, which seems to stand separately from the rest of the play. Though effective, to me this directorial decision sits at odds with the rest of the play.

York is a story of our shared history that needs to be told, and this debut production is skilfully directed, acted and designed. It is a credit to the writers, creatives, BSSTC and WAYTCo, that they have chosen to tell our stories – the stories of First Peoples – and tell those stories from a main stage.

It’s a must see.

York plays the State Theatre Centre of WA until 1 August 2021.

Pictured top: Jacob Narkle (who alternates with his brother Benjamin) as Lucas, with Shakira Clanton as Irene Campbell. Photo: Philip Gostelow

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Author —
Bruce Denny

Emerging critic Bruce Denny’s heritage is Yamatji down his mother’s side and native American down his father’s. He started his acting career in the late 1980s and has appeared in numerous Australian film, television and stage productions, most recently Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s The Sum of Us (2021). As a director Bruce’s most recent credit is Desert Wirla’s Kangaroo Stew. Bruce participated in Seesaw Magazine and Perth Festival’s inaugural mentoring workshops for emerging First Nations critics in 2020.

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