Protest and pride

The 7 Stages of Grieving (Queensland Theatre Company and The Grin and Tonic Theatre Troupe)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

March 17 – 31

“The 7 stages of Grieving” begins with a striking image of blue light bathing a centrally-situated mound of earth, upon which a small suitcase has been placed (containing, as is later revealed, the photographs of nameless deceased relatives.) It is a simple yet evocative picture that belies the show’s impressive staging, complex themes and tapestry of stories. Indeed, it is a work which makes a virtue out of its minimalism as it creates a sensory experience heightened by an initial full blackout and silence sans some bush sounds.

From this stark opening, performer Chenoa Deemal, (the only cast member) takes the audience on an almost hour long journey through tradition and heritage. From the darkness, she emerges to pour concentric circles of coloured sand around the mound (representing the rainbow coloured sands of Elim Beach where she grew up in Far North Queensland) before settling in to share her stories – narratives of her family, her friends and her ancestors. She begins with tale of her 62 year old grandmother’s recent death, funeral and the month of mourning that followed. There is much emotion within this initial episode as she tells of the sorrow of loss and joy of memory, in a manner of universal relevance to all have experienced grief. And as someone whose loss of a parent is still being measured in weeks, I must say that I was particularly moved by the emotional honesty of her lament of life, traditions and heritage gone. However, while “The 7 Stages of Grieving” chronicles loss, its focus is not so much on personal grief, but on the cultural loss experienced by Aborigines and it is soon apparent that what at first appears to be a play about death is actually about reconciliation.

Seven stages

Given the nature of this weighty subject matter, the work could easily wallow in the heavy depths of despair, but there are welcome flashes of humour and joy throughout thanks to Deemal’s thoroughly engaging performance, which showcases enormous range as she delivers episodes in varying styles, from standup comedy routine to the story of an Aboriginal man in police custody, delivered in the language of an official report. The strength of every story easily transcends the minimal staging and is complimented by Jason Klarwein’s creative direction, the show’s innovative staging and some impressive sound/projection designing, which makes riveting use of the Bille Brown Studio’s wide stage.

When Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch collaborated to create “The 7 Stages of Grieving” in 1995, they crafted an important theatre work that has gone on to become a modern Australian classic. Given recent controversial politician statements and the forced closure of aboriginal communities, its necessity in this 20th anniversary year, is, in some ways, as urgent as when it was first penned. Since its origin, the work has been updated with mentions of modern political figures and inclusion of references to the Australian Parliament’s official apology to the Aboriginal people and the ‘Sorry’ march across Sydney Harbour Bridge. But these changes are simply cosmetic, for this is a play that has endured the test of time simply because of the power of its messages of protest and pride. And the fact that its QTC season is virtually sold out, reveals that it is sharing accounts from a long tradition of storytelling that that people want to hear, particularly young people, given the demographic at the show I attended. Indeed this is a very accessible production. It is acutely emotive and visually stunning and I cannot recommend it emphatically enough as an absorbing, emotional and thought-provoking piece of theatrical art.

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