REVIEW: The Whisper by Brodie Murray

Late 1940s, the outskirts of Bordertown. Riley and his brother, Jack, are under the care of their Nan. Their parents have long-ago left to find work. Riley thinks they will be back one day, but Jack resents the fact they have been left behind and doesn’t expect to ever see them again.

Teenagers about to become men, their family is at the whims of the local authorities; Blak children under constant threat of the government taking them away from their land and their family and giving them to white parents to turn them into “civilised members of society”.

Writer Brodie Murray is passing on the story of his family in The Whisper. He spoke to his own Nan about her life taking children from Bordertown to Swan Hill to keep them safe; children who would call themselves brother and sister all their lives, even if they weren’t related.

This post-war story, though almost eighty-years-old, feels like it should be part of a far-older history of settlement and colonialism. That it is so close – in the lifetime of our parents and grandparents – reminds the audience how far we still have to go to fix the wrongs of our recent history.

The details are so evocative; settler colonialism has seeped into their lives. Nan lining up tins of beef outside their home to prove to roving police that she could feed her family. Young Riley is obsessed with Aussie Rules football. Brother Jack has fallen in love with a local white girl. Nan complains about the kids taking the Lord’s name in vain.

And one night they have to pick up, load a horse and cart and travel to Victoria. Pop Ray appears out of the bush and a sudden reunion quickly turns into a harrowing three-hundred-kilometre journey for the frightened family.

The story of The Whisper is very simple but is full of feeling – strength, resilience and a deep despair. How can these children start their lives if they might be stolen from family and country in an instant?

Greg Fryer brings a lot of quiet strength to the character of Pop, while also doubling – in threatening silhouette – as the police who are hunting them down. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra’s Nan is fiery; determined to protect her kids, while always scared to lose another.

Bella Neba and playwright Murray as Jack and Riley play off each with energy and humour, though Murray doesn’t always project well. Neba’s Jack is in a tougher position – if his relationship with a white girl is discovered, he will be jailed or killed. But while the stakes of his story are clearer, the nebulous threat of the authorities hiding in the shadows creates a dread throughout the piece.

It must have been hard to take family history and develop a play around the stories Murray’s nan told him as a child and as research for this play. The specificity makes the play rich, but it concludes in an ambiguous way that I didn’t feel wholly satisfied with. Leaving the audience with questions is fine, but I think the story could have benefitted from some more narrative clarity.

Spending time with these characters and hearing details of their lives in a time not so far removed from our own makes The Whisper truly fascinating, though.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

The Whisper is playing at Fortyfive Downstairs until February 25

Photo: Emma Salmon