REVIEW: The Visitors by Jane Harrison

“A play is a blueprint of an event: a way of creating and rewriting history through the medium of literature. Since history is a recorded or remembered event, theatre, for me, is the perfect place to ‘make’ history ­– this is, because so much of African-American history has been unrecorded, disremembered, washed out, one of my tasks as a playwright is to… locate the ancestral burial ground, dig for bones, find bones, hear the bones sing, write it down…”

– Suzan-Lori Parks, The America Play and Other Works


A blisteringly hot day. An escarpment looking out at the sea. Six elders and a young initiate gather to discuss the arrival of several nowee filled with large groups of shiny men.

“Shiny and pink. Like the inside of a shell.”

It is, in the calendar of the white fella, January 26th, 1788. The nowee are the boats of the First Fleet. And it’s been eighteen summers since any of them set eyes on men like these visitors. They never expected to see them back, but now they are here, this council of elders must discuss whether or not to welcome these people to their Country.

The men, all dressed in suits, agree to speak in a common language and to the rules of the meeting. They must hold the message stick to talk. They must all have equal time. And they have to agree on whether to give the young initiate an equal voice.

Jane Harrison’s The Visitors is a remaking of history from the points-of-view of these elders, each representing their own mob/land/country. It is painstakingly researched, based on observations written down by the colonisers who would settle this so-called country of Australia.

The play appears, at first glance, to be a satire on government regulation or small-minded committees. Infighting at the local PTA meeting. Or board meetings filled with shareholders at odds. And it is that, through a twenty-first century lens; the structures of a white settler colony read onto the lost history of First Nations people.

But as it rolls along, it becomes a document of peoples whose histories have been nullified at every turn. It is “men’s business” – long, meandering discussions of history and values and how to uphold their rights and their own ethics. Early on, a majority of the men vote to fight back – to send these people back to where they came from. But there is a lone voice arguing for welcoming these interlopers, greeting them with open-arms, as they have greeted each other after their long treks to this outcrop and cove.

Given how rich this text is with deeper meanings, new histories, and an inevitable devastating ending – I was surprised how funny this script is. Harrison has a lot of fun playing with the language of meetings and rules and structure. For every hint that something terrible is coming – a bird falling from the sky, a sneeze – we are also allowed to enjoy meeting protocol and debates over a platter of oysters, pippis and a variety of cockles.

The Visitors was first produced as part of Sydney Festival in 2020, after nearly a decade of development with support from Monash University, the Yellamundie Festival, Moogahlin Performing Arts and Melbourne Theatre Company – including as part of the Cybec Electric playreading series in 2014. I make note of this only because, after premiering in Sydney in 2020 and a new production debuting at Sydney Theatre Company this year, the play is yet to appear in Melbourne. A great shame.

I travelled to the newly-refurbished Geelong Arts Centre to see the STC version, directed by Wesley Enoch, after it travelled to Woollongong and before it opens at the Canberra Theatre Centre this week. I’m so glad I made the trip from Naarm to Djilang.

While the original script (and the subsequent novel) is filled with male characters, the Sydney Theatre Production has cast two women. It took a little bit of thinking through to figure out if Elaine Crombie and Dalara Williams were playing male characters, but in the end, it didn’t matter. If theatre is a way to recast history, women playing men is fine, of course. Or even a queer reading sits okay with me; the character played by Elaine Crombie talks about having a new wife.

Designer Elizabeth Gadsby gives us a multi-faceted sandstone rock in the middle of the stage, allowing the characters to tower over others or shrink back when it’s not their turn to talk. And while she puts the characters in suits (as directed in the script), there is some ingenious costume redesign that is revealed later in the show.

Brendon Boney’s sound design puts us out on that rock, hearing wind whistle and bird song. His work is very effective in suggesting place and mood very subtly.

Elaine Crombie’s performance is the comic highlight of the show, piercing the pretensions of the men puffing up their chests and demanding to be heard. Guy Simon’s character tries to keep the meeting on track, but is mostly frustrated in his efforts to steer things back to the subject at hand. Aaron Pedersen is powerful as Gordon, whose land is hosting the council gathering and who must make the final decision of whether to welcome the eponymous visitors.

One of my favourite dramatic tropes is watching characters not knowing they are living through history. The white people of Mad Men barely noticing the racial tensions happening around them. The Weimar Republic about to be wiped out in Cabaret. Elizabeth losing her father in the early episodes of The Crown.

The Visitors is that for the invasion of this land and the start of settlement and the genocide of First Nations people. It’s such a simple premise, delivered in such an entertaining way, with devastating hints of what is to come dropped into conversation as if they are nothing.

That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of real drama in what they describe in relation to the things they’ve seen these white men do before – the description of a lynching is stomach churning – but mostly this is just another day for them.

“I was wondering… how we would remember this day.”

“As a day we’ll never get back.”

Just as we might say about a day of meetings, if we have no idea our world is about to change.

In the published script of The Visitors, Jane Harrison provides detailed annotations, sourced from letters, journals and books of the colonisers. She references these mostly first-hand accounts so that her “version” of history is not so easily dismissed. Even now, the coloniser narrative is so strong, a First Nations playwright is forced to cover herself, prepared for the backlash. In a world where we accept alternative histories as a genre of fiction, here is the reimaging of that fateful day by an Aboriginal writer and Jane Harrison feels like she had to justify it.

This play is an astonishing piece of work that should tour all over this land. It’s inventive and instructive. It’s clever and devastating. There are a lot of laughs and an ending that will knock you backwards, even as you can see history bearing down upon them and us.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

The Visitors is playing at the Canberra Theatre Centre for six performances this week, from Nov 8 to 11, including a schools’ performance on Friday. 

Photo: Daniel Boud