Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Belfast Girls

Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre through August 31

Belfast Girls, a play by Jaki McCarrick, is currently playing a The Q. This is a play about five women who were transported to Australia from Ireland at the height of the potato famine. Set entirely on the ship, from its berth in Belfast to the arrival in Sydney, it is the story of these refugees and their journey from starvation to salvation at the ends of the Earth.  Envisaged by the British sponsor as a noble humanitarian plan to save the innocent girls of Ireland from the depredations of the famine, the reality of these desperate refugees are shown on stage. As the ship sails and the story develops, the relationship of the women with each other, and with their pasts comes into vivid focus. Haunted by their pasts, and confined to a cabin by the nature of the voyage, their secrets and sins are gradually unmasked.

Director Best puts the play on straight up- Irish accents, a marvellous wooden ship set, appropriate period costumes and no pretentious reinterpretations or changes. However she excels at extracting the maximum drama from he cast in each scene. And the acting is great. Natasha Vickery is fantastic, as is Joanna Richards in their frequent tempestuous clashes, and the other three women are also compelling.

The play was written by an Irishwoman living in England. As far as I can tell, this is the first production in Australia. This makes it a bit of a treat for us, as the characters shown (and their compatriots) are the family of almost all of us Australians. While we have no idea how the Aborigine’s ancestors got here, from 1788 on, we have been peopled by convicts, refugees, swindler, liars, cheats, sadistic imperialists, and other opportunists. And it is riveting to see the desperate schemers, cast off by the old world, on their journey to a better place and a life remade. Of course, Irish refugees didn’t just go to Australia, they fled to other places as well, including the USA. As such, it reminds me of the poem which has been in the news of late, The New Colossus, by Emma Lazarus:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

This play is a poignant reminder of the colourful, passionate, desperate beginnings of those who left Europe for a better future. In this age of refugee demonization and callous border militarization, it is a reminder that we are all the children of the unwanted starving masses, whose crimes and limitations were left behind when they crossed the seas to a new beginning.