Conversations with the Dead
Review by Rhys Tarling
Conversations with the Dead, written by Richard Frankland and directed by James Taylor, follows Jack (Alan Little/Maitland Schnaars), a young Koori man whose job it is to investigate Aboriginal deaths in custody. The play is very much based on Frankland’s own experience as a Field Officer during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, and this play honours that authenticity and honesty; it’s suffused with every facet of grief – the rage, the overwhelming sense of futility, the numbness. The spirits, played by Simone Detourbet, Calen Tassone, and Peter Docker, seem both to taunt and offer Jack advice; their motives are ultimately inscrutable but that makes a certain kind of sense – they are, after all, dead. The title is darkly funny that way.
Jack straddles the line between the white man’s world and the Aboriginal’s world with his job, and this causes a unique kind of anguish that actor Alan Little conveys with such eloquence – it’s incredible that this is his first professional theatre gig – easily alternating between volcanic outrage and tenderness while he navigates a chronically racist society and commits taboos against his own people. Maitland Schnaars is an older Jack whose sanity and will to live is slipping, and his moments are shadows and clouds over young Jack’s few bright moments of optimism and joy.
Conversation with the Dead‘s most intense and excruciating moments belong Schnaar’s Jack, with one particularly bleak moment involving self-mutilation.
I’ll admit that sometimes I was quite lost during the story. Who was who in relation to whom? who just said what? where are we now? what’s happening? is this happening? were questions that floated in and out of my mind during Conversations. It was a bit unwieldy at times, but thanks to the brilliant acting and tight thematics, I was never un-engaged, even during those most confusing moments.
There are a couple of musical sequences, singing and dancing, with Zac James alternating between the charater of David and as the main guitarist. The guitar strumming had the quality of a hungry coyote roaming the desert, quite similar to Neil Young’s music for Dead Man, and it enhanced the mood beautifully.
Conversations with the Dead, even with some of the problems I had with following moments in it, was well worth it. It’s production is quite unlike any play I’ve ever seen, and the very honest grief on display is something, at the very least, we can’t avert our eyes to.