Different ways of getting under the skin

Issue 

Skin
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 2, Sydney until March 16
Reviewed by Lisa Macdonald Skin incorporates two very different, tenuously linked plays. The first, Somewhere in the Darkness, written by Ray Kelly, draws on the traditions of Aboriginal storytelling to make a powerful statement about the destruction of Aboriginal culture and people, and their search for freedom from the power of non-Aboriginal beliefs, institutions and values. It is the first play by a Koori writer to be produced by Sydney Theatre Company. Billy (played brilliantly by Brad Byquar) is a down and out alcoholic who, after deserting his family, thrashes about in a frenzy of blame before a spirit, the Noolung-goorah (David Kennedy is a delight), enters his world and pushes him towards facing reconciliation with his true nature. Despite Billy's agony and the misery he causes others, the play is in the end an optimistic reflection on people's capacity to overcome fear and oppression by trusting in themselves. Kelly says of his play, "We Australians, black and white, are being asked to commit to a process of reconciliation. Our history will cause us much hardship and pain; however, it cannot be denied. The truth is the truth. I offer this story as a contribution to the truth." The surprising humour, the energy of the young cast and the beautiful use of colour, light and movement in the settings make Somewhere in the Darkness not only a challenging social commentary but a joy to watch. Skin is worth seeing for this play alone. The second play, Historian, is billed as a play about sexuality, ethnicity, history and wallpaper. It tells the story of two couples — Zosia and Zoe in present day Sydney, and the Artist and the Anthropologist at the turn of the century. Zosia and Zoe begin an affair and, connected by desire, e-mail and clandestine encounters, they revisit the western suburbs landscapes of their growing up, swapping stories about their heritage and their families' conservative notions of family life and sexuality. The two men are very loosely based on anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) and artist Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz (1885-1939). The two relationships are linked by Zosia's research interest in the Artist and the Anthropologist. Historian contains some sharp and humorous insights into life in Sydney's western suburbs (thus the reference to wallpaper), the expectations of newly arrived migrants to this "lucky country" and the creation of sexual norms and practices by role models and expectations which bear little or no relation to people's daily experience of love and sex. Despite convincing acting and a clever (at moments poetic) script, I didn't enjoy Historian much. Perhaps it tries too hard to be clever. Or maybe it's just that, despite the abundance of narrative, it doesn't have much to say. Skin is accompanied by an exhibition of art works from the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative.