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Melbourne Fringe: The Mission by Tom Molyneux

The Mission by Tom Molyneux
Photo: Sarah Walker

The widespread use of Acknowledgement of Country throughout the theatrical community is a good reminder that we live and work and tell stories on a land that has been home to Australia’s Indigenous people for forty-thousand years. Any Fringe show presenting work on the lands of the Wurundjeri people in the Birrarung are continuing a very long tradition.

Performer Tom Molyneux’s Acknowledgement of Country feeds directly into the story of The Mission; “sovereignty has never been ceded” is a strong jumping-off point for a story about our Indigenous population’s autonomy.

This personal history begins thirty-thousand years ago at the forming of Budj Bim, a volcano in Western Victoria. The Budj Bim area is a very important one to the Gunditjmara people, a site where they developed a system of aquaculture, thousands of years before European settlement.

After European settlement, it was the site of Eumerella Wars, where the Gunditjmara were overwhelmed and killed by colonisers who had the support of Native Police – Aboriginal troopers under the command of a white police officer.

Around the same time, Budj Bim was renamed Mount Eccles after William Eeles; the original Indigenous name was displaced by the misspelled name of a war buddy of Major Thomas Mitchell.

The scene is set for Tom’s more recent ancestors to take their place in the story, the particular focus of which is Uncle Allan McDonald, who was born in the late 1800s and later fought in World War I.

The Mission explores Allan’s life in Western Victoria on the missions in and around Budj Bim and Warrnambool. And then we join him on the ship to Egypt where he will train along with other soldiers before fighting at Gallipoli and Beersheba, two of the most famous campaigns involving Australian troops during the first World War.

As a “half caste,” Allan is accepted into the military because he looks closer to white than black and has grown up around the “good influence” of white colonisers. His brother is deemed “not white enough” to enlist.

Tom’s performance is quite gentle in its approach to difficult history and incendiary topics, taking us along as a guide and, for most of the piece, giving a stellar performance as Allan McDonald. There’s a gentle burn of fury underneath; the way Allan is treated on his return is utterly heartbreaking and completely expected.

Director James Jackson gives Tom the space to move and play and explore this very personal story. John Collopy’s lighting design is subtle when it needs to be and striking in moments of surprise; Allan’s first view of Egypt is bright and overwhelming – for him and for the audience.

The script is strong; this land’s history is so integral to Indigenous culture and it’s vital to this piece. Tom builds a full picture of Budj Bim and the Christian missions and parts of Western Victoria I know so little about – and you can feel the distance from home when Alan travels to Egypt and the Middle East.

At the centre of the piece is a family story that is rich in culture and in place, but Tom admits has moments that wouldn’t be out of place on Neighbours. Allan lived a long life and saw his home and his country change a great deal. Early in his life, he was a young man fighting for his land overseas, continuing a tradition of his people fighting for that same land but losing it.

He may not have been respected when he returned from the war, but he lived long enough to see the day when Australia finally considered him a person – decades after he sacrificed so much for the colonisers of this land.

The Mission is a beautiful, touching and rich tribute to a man and his people and the land they fought and died for. A land his people keep fighting and dying for. Sovereignty was never ceded and Tom Molyneux’s new play and performance carries this truth with it. I hope it leads a long, strong life.

The Mission plays at Melbourne Fringe tonight and tomorrow night and will be part of a regional tour in 2019.

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