edited by Rachael Hains-Wesson
One of the troubling aspects of living in a country that embraces the ‘fair go’ notion of equality as a national ethos, is reconciling this with the terrible racism of Australia's White policy that prevailed until the not-so-distant past. From the early 1900’s, the government tried to restrict non-Europeans from living and working in Australia, which often caused severe ethnic anxieties. Black Swan State Theatre Company’s The White Divers of Broome tries to highlight this regrettable episode of Western Australia's history by telling the story of racial tensions in 1912 that occurred in the pearling industry in Broome.
In the opening moments of the play, the audience views an intriguing and exotic Broome one hundred years ago. During this time, people from Java, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, Borneo, Vietnam and Australia’s Indigenous peoples came to Broome in search of work in the pearl diving trade. The play opens a gateway into this past, and by using the romantic language associated with the luggers, tenders and the perils of diving deep in order to secure nature’s jewels, offers the audience a fascinating glimpse into Australia’s history that many would barely recall.
This magical exoticism however, is quickly overshadowed by the lengthy opening scene that has Pigott (Ian Toyne) explain the production’s plotline using sledge-hammer subtlety. There are white divers from the British Navy who are going to come to Broome so that they can illustrate that Oriental labour is not needed nor wanted in a pure White Australia. Predictably, it doesn’t take long before the non-Western and non-White crew members are exploited, with racial tensions emerging and the exotic frontier town becoming an abyss of betrayal and greed.
Unfortunately however, the play lacked any real emotional punch. For one, there were too many characters being introduced without any real connection and appropriate background, so when the pivotal moments of betrayal and loss became evident, these characters felt forced and distant. I also think it was a script that tried to do too much and ended up lumbering through to the final scene without any real coherency. This was a shame, because the subject matter deserves extra attention as of being an extraordinary and important part of Australia's history.
Nevertheless, there were several redeeming facets of the play. The set design by Bruce McKinven was truly outstanding and together with the brilliant lighting by Trent Suidgeest created moments of visual magic such as the starry night sky of Broome and also the men’s descent into the deep blue waters. The sound design by Ben Collins was restrained but still effective, complementing the multicultural nature of the play well. The costume design by Alicia Clements added to the authenticity of the Japanese dialogue scenes which were acted terrifically by both Miyuki Lotz and Yutaka Izumihara, lending credibility to the exotic vibe that the play was trying to portray. I also feel that Black Swan should be commended for producing local stories, exploring vital moments in our history, and making them more accessible to a wider audience.
The White Divers of Broome runs until the 16th of February at the State Theatre Centre, Perth.
About Steve Barrett
Steve is completing a combined Science/Arts degree at The University of Western Australia and is part of Trove's theatre and film review team for 2012.