Director Wayne Blair and actress Rarriwuy Hick during rehearsals.

Director Wayne Blair and actress Rarriwuy Hick during rehearsals. Photo: Pia Johnson

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

Walking into the Bigness 
Richard Frankland
Malthouse Theatre
Until August 23

There’s a telling moment right at the end of Walking into the Bigness where Richard Frankland himself walks into the spotlight and dwarfs everything that has gone before. The man emanates more modest dignity and natural authority, more gravitas and stoicism and gentle wisdom – in short, more life – than the whole cast put together.

It’s the sort of show that makes theatre look like a shallow, useless thing. And that’s a great shame, because the stories in it have heft and urgency and should carry serious dramatic freight.

They draw on Frankland’s experiences as an under-age abattoir worker in Portland, a fisherman in Bass Strait, as a young soldier in the army, as a commissioner into Aboriginal deaths in custody.

They carry within them a song that weaves disparate strands of Koorie culture – its wounds and its resilience, its strong oral tradition and its welcoming sense of community – as well as the sting of casual racism and the blight of the institutional kind (the stolen generations are just the tip of the iceberg).

It ripples into outright poetry, broadening into a world song that takes in checkpoints in Ramallah and the slums of Mexico, and grows dense with the question of how the suffering of Indigenous people can be given due recognition and still borne with dignity, by all Australians alike.

That’s all there in the script, but the performance style is so loose and sketchy that Walking into the Bigness is often reduced to fearful sentimentality (the death of real emotion) and a choric mode that verges on earnest recital.

The cast of five – Tammy Anderson, Paul Ashcroft, Luisa Hastings Edge, Rarriwuy Hick and Tiriki Onus – do have occasional moments of individual flair, but whatever melange of ritualistic theatre, naturalism, cabaret, storytelling and re-enactment co-directors Wayne Blair and Chris Mead had in mind falls into the cracks between styles. And the cracks are filled with various self-conscious mannerisms the actors naturally fall back on.

The songs, too, don’t have the lustre and heart of the one Frankland sings at the end, and perhaps including him as an actor, as a sort of totemic anchor to the performance, might have improved things.

Walking into the Bigness contains vitally important Aboriginal stories. But as performance, it’s disappointing, and doesn’t have a patch on the theatrical skill of other shows – such as, say, Big hART’s Namatjira Project – which bring Indigenous lives to the stage.