A soft dusk falls on Parramatta; the evening a simmering chorus of crickets, bats overhead, and, no doubt, the eels (‘burra’) which gave the area’s traditional owners, the Burramuttagal people, its name and principle source of food, lurking somewhere in the depths of the river below. As an audience member of Urban Theatre Projects’ new site-specific work, The Fence, you become acutely aware of the setting as you walk from the Riverside Theatres to the grounds of a former institution where there’s a specially constructed suburban backyard; its house sliced open to reveal the evening pottering of its inhabitants settling down to ‘tea’. It is over this invisible fence and into the lives of five people variously affected by the policies which resulted in the Stolen and Forgotten Generations, the long-term impact of loss of family, that we, for an hour, are invited to peer. The Fence centres on the relationship between an Indigenous man, Mel, whose long-absent sister was removed from their mother as a child (her appearance at the house dredging up long-buried traumas) and Joy, a non-Indigenous woman who was also institutionalised as a child.
Intensive community collaboration is essential to the company’s devising process; with consultants with knowledge or first-hand experience of institutionalised care being brought in every ten days or so to gage the truthfulness of the piece. Played out in real-time over the course of an evening’s activities, the result is a work that is homely, banal at times (in the way that home is), and incredibly real: from the scraping of knife against plate to the crackling of the real fire in the yard. The sense of fragility of all these relationships and the intrinsic and ongoing experience of loss is finely drawn and there’s a truth that resounds in spite of some clunky line delivery; or perhaps because of it – because anyone who’s been involved in familial confrontation will know that it is, in itself, slightly performative. It’s a difficult piece to review because the characters experiences do seem so real; based, as they are, on real accounts. Both voyeuristic and incredibly intimate, it’s a resonating piece of almost-not theatre.
Until Jan 30, meeting point at Parramatta Riverside Theatres, $35-45 (or try Tix for Next to Nix, $25 when bought on the day), 8839 3399 or sydneyfestival.org.au