Bighouse Dreaming is the type of work that reminds one of the simple, devastating power of a well-crafted drama.
Generally, festival line-ups are typified by works of vast spectacle or stylistic gimmickry or wild experimentation. And, to be clear, all of those things can be wonderful. But, it’s very nice to see a work that leaves you gasping for breath through sheer storytelling and performance craft.
The work orbits a magnetic (and brilliant) Declan Furber Gillick. As both writer and lead actor for the piece, Gillick’s skill, commitment and charisma is on full display throughout the work. The rest of the production consists of small embellishments and details echoing out from Gillick’s work. Powerful and resonant ones, undeniably, but all anchored by Gillick.
The story is so straightforward, it could seem cliché in less capable hands. It’s the story of a young Indigenous boy, on the cusp of adulthood, as he and those around him strive to extricate him from a systemic set of societal rhythms seemingly designed to leave him crippled and invisible within Australia’s larger context. Undoubtedly, it will cuts far too close to real-world situations for many.
Gillick and his collaborators take this story and imbue it with detail, context and humanity. While the cast on stage is simply three men with minimal costume or set changes, we see the worlds, families and adversaries of our protagonist in vivid relief. The simmering, mediocre hypocrisy of a prison guard accused of harassment who sneers in disgust at a young Indigenous boy. The exasperated desperation of a recent law graduate trying to stop the system from destroying his young charge.
And, we see the young man himself. Christopher Wallace. A.K.A. C-War. An aspiring rapper (providentially bestowed with the birthname of Notorious B.I.G., in spite of his mother’s apparent ignorance of the form), Wallace is complex. Struggling. Abandoned. Self-destructive, angry, brilliant, funny, stubborn, caring. It’s a great piece of writing and an even greater performance from Gillick. There’s a detail to Wallace that lends his trials weight.
The design elements are minimal, but deliberate. The use of folded tables to recreate the cold, blank landscapes of prisons, courts and medical assessment rooms, for example, is inspired. Once again, there’s very few resources explicitly showcased on stage – but the ensemble conjure entire worlds. A lamp, hovering over C-War’s friend as he sits in his bedroom and cycles over rhymes, seems to speak to a million teenage bedrooms and moments.
It’s a hard play.
It’s funny, accessible and, when C-War shows his skills as a rapper, impressively musical. But, it pulls no punches. And, when it hits, it hits hard. For some, C-War’s fate will be the most potent moment of the work. But, it’s a testament to the creative team’s craft that it’s actually the work’s final moments that truly haunt. A stark reminder that, while non-Indigenous allies can (and do) walk away from fighting white supremacy, Indigenous people have no choice but to live and fight under it.
Again, it’s the type of work that can’t help but remind you just how much pure, well-crafted theatre can do, as an artform.
MJ O’Neill saw Bighouse Dreaming on 24 September as a part of the 2019 Brisbane Festival. Bighouse Dreaming played at the Theatre Republic from 24 – 28 September.
Performer | Declan Furber Gillick
Performer | Ross Daniels
Performer | Dushan Phillips
Writer | Declan Furber Gillick
Director | Mark Wilson
Producer | Susannah Day
Costume and Set Design | Bethany J Fellows
Lighting Design | Kris Chainey
Sound Design | Mark Coles Smith