I’ve only been to the town of York a couple of times when I was younger. It must have been during the school holidays when mum and dad saw the opportunity to entertain my brother and me with the one-hour road trip.
I don’t remember much except that I had never been to a place that was so small. It felt like the whole town could be seen in the main street. I’ve also been told by an Italian friend that they have the best liquorice ice cream outside of Rome. But what I’ve never been told about is the town’s ugly past.
York, written by Wilman Noongar man Ian Michael and Chris Isaacs, takes place on Ballardong Noongar land and is influenced by 200 years of true stories. These stories made me laugh, jump in my seat and when I least expected it, confronted me with the violent history of this country.
The play, named after the oldest inland town in Western Australia, invites the audience to look back in time to uncover the scars this country tries so hard to hide. If, like many Australians, you don’t know much about the killings of Aboriginal people that have taken place all across the country, York is a great place to start learning more. At first, York warmly invites the audience to open their curiosities with a first act I can only describe as a comedic horror.
The second act will haunt you as well, but not with jump scares or stories of ghosts. Instead, it will confront you with the disturbing truth of this town. Like so many other places in this country, Indigenous people have been abused, disrespected, killed and their stories covered up.
Australians are fond of telling stories of our past–the mateship of the ANZACs at Gallipoli, or the perseverance of Steven Bradbury to win gold at the Winter Olympics. We love to revel in the moments where we showed great courage and beat the odds. However, when it comes to the darker moments in our country’s past, at best, we’re hesitant to discuss them; at worst, we actively try to hide them.
The Spanish-American writer George Santayana’s famous words “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” are espoused so much they can lose their meaning. But Australia is living proof of this aphorism. The majority of Australians have never heard of such killings as the one that took place in York.
Because there is such dissonance between what non-Indigenous Australians believe about our past and what actually happened, it’s inevitable that many Australians are confused as to why Indigenous people might be angry or distrustful. The relationship between non-Indigenous and Indigenous Australians can only be described in my eyes as a form of gaslighting. Whether it’s out of ignorance or not, non-Indigenous Australians act like we’ve done nothing wrong and Indigenous people have nothing to be angry about.
I hope that the more these stories are told, the more this country can heal.
This play is not just great for the story it tells, but the beautifully skilled way in which it is told. From the dialogue, to the acting, through to even the set and costumes, I always felt like I was in safe hands with how this story was being told.
The juxtaposition between the high tempo first act and the slower yet more powerful second act help to amplify the strengths of both. The switch between the tones of the first and second was immaculate and fitted the story perfectly.
I’m no expert on acting; but any set of actors who can make me laugh in the first act and then give me goosebumps in the second, is good at their craft in my book. All the actors inhabited their roles seamlessly and, along with the costumes designed by Zoë Atkinson, caused me to often forget that I was watching characters, instead of real people.
If you are like me and the idea of going to a play intimidates you, I think York is the play to help you ease your way into the theatrical waters. The writing is intelligent but not pretentious, and even though it depicts historical events it always makes sure to connect them to the present.
The true events depicted in York have waited far too long to be told, but I can only think that the reason they have had to wait so long is so that they could be told in this way by Ian Michael and Chris Isaacs. Whatever the reason, there is not a more important story for audiences to watch in 2021.