By Andrew Bovell. Director: Ariette Taylor. Sydney Theatre Company. Wharf 1. August 13

The shadowy, brutal outback vastness of Andrew Bovell’s strong and powerful Holy Day is constantly in motion as worlds brush suspiciously past one another or violently collide.

Bovell turns to the mythology of the lost child in the landscape but not in any romantic or half-hearted sense. It packs too much of a punch for that and may well haunt you for a long time after.

Holy Day potently depicts the uneasy silences, pacts and conflicts between whites and blacks. In its most explosive moments, the abusive, lawless and alienating deeds of the people themselves assume a savagery that not even the remote landscape with all its treacheries and tricks can compete with.

Pamela Rabe in Holy DayThe play is replete with symbolic ritual and is, at one level, an intriguing and open-ended tale about the disappearance of the child of white missionaries in 19th century Australia, apparently stolen by Aborigines. But as the drama unfolds, the concerns of the playwright shift to consider the plight and fate of the stolen black child, and it is here where Holy Day achieves much of its richness and disturbing force.

Ariette Taylor’s imaginative and effective staging evokes the necessary epic feel and vastness by giving Bovell’s words due weight and breathing space in splendid collaboration with designer Adrienne Chisholm and composer Darrin Verhagen. The use of two revolving performance arenas dotted with tree trunks enable constant change and flow – the muscularity and glimmers of tenderness in the play’s many small scenes appearing to exist not only in the wilds of nature but among its hardiness and miraculous renewals.

Bovell’s text could withstand some editing, especially in the last act, but his characters are finely wrought, each fallen from grace, needy and travelling a fearful, Godless road. They are combative and defensive except for the Aboriginal “daughter” Obedience (Natasha Wanganeen) who is taken by Nora (Pamela Rabe) for her own, and the abused white boy Cornelius (Abe Forsythe) taken by another.

The ensemble is superb, and from the first tantalising thrust of Nora’s axe to that of her resilient last, the dimension and daring of Rabe’s acting keeps us enthralled. She thoroughly convinces as the tough, workaday Nora while drawing out the character’s protective instincts and melancholia beneath the stoic facade.

Most violent and volatile of all is the rampaging drunken nomad Goundry, played with primitive vigour by Steve Le Marquand. It’s a morally repugnant figure without any shades of grey let alone any hope of redemption. As the farmer Wakefield, Anthony Whelan brings a softer yet still brusque bearing to the part, a man who at least shows some sign of a conscience when pushed.

One of the great strengths of Bovell’s writing is the way that it lyrically conveys complex emotions and illuminates aspects of human suffering, denial, sacrifice and loss without being especially didactic or over-arching. One memorable moment comes when Kyas Sherriff’s captive Linda breaks her silence about the disappearance of the missionary Elizabeth’s (Belinda McClory) baby. Water motifs and rituals run throughout Holy Day, as it does in this most heart-rending and Shakespearean of scenes.

McClory gives a tight, poised performance – her seemingly dispassionate demeanour recalling that of, say, Lindy Chamberlain yet ultimately a figure we are never entirely sure of given her state of mind and shattering loss of faith.

Holy Day is a tough and demanding play. Bovell’s storytelling boldness stimulates many thoughts about our history of occupation and dispossession while Taylor’s staging reinforces its reverie and inquisitive nature. It serves to reveal how myths are bred and truths are banished.

“You and I will be silent about what has passed. For what is not spoken will eventually fade,” says Wakefield to the quietly acquiescent Elizabeth – a pact that history has shown has done no one proud.

Until September 27


Photos by Tracy Schramm