Milk. By Dylan Van Den Berg. Directed by Ginny Savage. Cultural consultant Gaye Doolan. Designed by Imogen Keen. Street One, The Street Theatre. A Street Produced Contemporary Theatre Production. Until June 12, 2021. thestreet.org.au.
A softly howling wind sweeps across the barren rocky outcrop of metaphysical Flinders Island off the Tasmanian coast. Imogen Keen's design for The Street Theatre's production of Dylan Van Den Berg's award- winning play Milk immediately conjures the pervading themes of lost connections, colonial oppression and the search for identity.
A young white-faced Palawa man (Van Den Berg) embarks upon a quest to discover his Indigenous heritage and finds himself transported to Tini Drini (The Island of the Dead) in the presence of his grandmother as a young sassy woman (Katie Beckett) and his great-great-grandmother (Roxanne McDonald).
Van Den Berg's three unnamed characters, known simply as Characters A, B and C, are drawn together by their personal familial connections and assume a universal identity. Character C represents all young people, desperate to discover the stories of their Indigenous lineage through the lost, forgotten or ignored stories of those who came before. It is the power of this archetypal construct that lends Milk such emotive force, such haunting resonance and such visceral identification. It is essentially the tragedy of a land's Indigenous history.
Character A (McDonald) is an old woman at the end of a long-suffering life. Her story reveals the heart-rending pain of colonial oppression and religious indoctrination. McDonald's riveting performance is raw and painful as she describes the brutal treatment she suffered at the hands of the white settlers and her own husband.
Both she and her granddaughter, Character B, are victims of male abuse and prejudice, with only their instinct for survival to fuel their resilience. Beckett's Character B finds salvation through her avoidance of the truth. Its suppression has enabled her to survive and the defences, underpinned with sardonic humour, are not fractured until the young man's persistent questioning exposes the hidden truth.
Van Den Berg's talent as a significant emerging dramatic voice is to avoid judgement in Milk. His play and Ginny Savage's sensitive direction do not roar with the anger of protest. Rather, the production, heightened by Gerry Corcoran's lighting and Peter Bailey's sound, highlights the tragedy of loss and becomes a plea for truth and understanding and ultimately reconciliation.
"It's all out there," says Character C. "Even the stuff we think is gone. We just - Have to listen. We just - Have to dance."
Milk is a song of hope, dancing on the stories of the dead and singing on the songlines of the wind to tell the young Palawa man's unborn baby girl where she came from and who she came from.
With its genesis in The Street's First Seen program and now with this excellent professional world premiere production, Milk is a voice that needs to be heard in major state theatres. I strongly urge audiences to buy the program that also contains the full edition of the play. Milk is a play that compels you to listen, to consider and to learn. Highly recommended.