Friday, February 10, 2012

The White Divers of Broome + bonus language rant

I had the chance to go see Black Swan State Theatre Company's The White Divers of Broome last night at the brand-spanking new Heath Ledger Theatre (or 'the Ledger', if you're in the know, or maybe even 'the Ledge'). I went to Broome almost exactly a year ago and became interested in the excesses and abuses of the pearling industry, so I couldn't possibly miss this piece. 

The play is set in the early 20th century, when Broome's pearling industry was exempt from the White Australia policy as profits depended on cheap labour by Asian and Indigenous divers. One pearling magnate, Sydney Pigott, sets up the 'White Experiment', or brings over lauded divers from the British Navy with the hope of gaining an upper hand over his competitors with modern technology and 'superior' white workers. The local divers are understandably unhappy about the prospect of losing their work and being deported and begin to scheme to sabotage the efforts of the three Britons. The subplot detailing the sacrifices diver Nishi and his wife Yukiko make to secure a lugger for the town's Japanese community is particularly striking. As the 'White Experiment' fails to bring in desired profits, Pigott becomes keen to smoke out his new recruits in any way possible and convince the government that pearl diving isn't a white man's game after all. The story is framed by the investigations of a young reporter, Regina, keen to write on the extension of the White Australia policy to the pearling industry, and also features the efforts of Daisy, Pigott's Indigenous maid, to find out more about her long-since deceased mother.

The set design is sparse and effective, and the underwater scenes are particularly eerie and ethereal. There were some minor technical difficulties during the show, though, when the software used to control the harnesses stopped working. On the one hand unfortunate, but also oddly appropriate for a play that is, in part, about the problems of relying on technological gadgetry.

The highlights of the performance were Kenneth Moraleda's Bin Mahomet, a former diver-turned-tender and occasional loose cannon who delivers most of the play's comic relief, and the scenes between Nishi (Yutaka Izumihara) and Yukiko (Miyuki Lotz). These latter scenes are played entirely in Japanese, with English surtitles projected above the stage. After the show there happened to be a Q&A session with the cast, and someone from the audience asked why those scenes weren't in English, why have the characters speak Japanese. I was quite baffled by the question - of course the characters should speak Japanese, they are Japanese! Nothing annoys me more than thoroughly Anglophone productions where "a foreign language" is indicated by accented English and a few simple words of the other language thrown in, or depictions of non-native English speakers who have otherwise mastered their new language but again have to resort to their native tongue for such complicated statements as 'yes', 'no' and 'hello'. So I certainly salute The White Divers of Broome for getting it right. The Q&A revealed that while Lotz is conversant in everyday contemporary Japanese, for the production she had to learn her lines in traditional Japanese - a detail that would escape most people but says something of the level of accuracy the production aspires towards.

The story isn't without flaws, and the motivation behind some scenes is not clear. I cannot believe, for example, that Pigott would have consented to going for a dive himself, even if he was being accused of being a coward. Even so, The White Divers of Broome is worth a look: the play runs until Thursday 16 February, so go while you still can.

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