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Upstairs, downstairs: the many levels and heated layers of Black Swan’s new production ‘York’

York is a ghost story in the traditional sense, packed with spooky spectres, eerie sounds and the odd bout of telekinesis. But it is also a ghost story of a different, more pertinent kind: a sad and often violent narrative spanning 200 years of real accounts in the bloody history of Australian colonisation. It is a story that has long been buried, haunting Australian people of all generations and backgrounds, but one that needs to be out in the open so that it can lead to some form of resolution.

Set in York – Western Australia’s oldest inland town, 100 kilometres east of Perth – in an abandoned hospital that locals insist is haunted, the play digs up horrific truths from the past which otherwise have remained buried in the name of white reputation, progress and, yes, supremacy in certain cases.

The hospital – which once held injured soldiers of war and the mentally ill – has gone through various incarnations through the decades, eventually playing host to a group of happy school campers and now standing (just) as a fixer-upper for modern couple Rosy and Emma.

Rosy and Em are excited to be moving in but little do our DIY-ers know there is going to be a lot more to contend with in this place then chopping down trees and replacing wooden benchtops with marble.

A little history…

For thousands of years, York had been occupied by the Ballardong Nyoongar people, and it was as picturesque a rural region as it was plentiful in natural resources. Then, in 1831 – just two years after Perth was settled – the Europeans began settling on Ballardong land, tearing down trees and damming the rivers so as to make way for sheep and grain farming, pig raising and horse breeding. This led to a population boom in the 1850s gold rush since York was one of the last rail stops before miners would walk to the goldfields.

You don’t need to be a genius in history or geography to know this involved a lot of land upturn and messy activity in two short decades, damaging much of an area that was once placid and peaceful, and doing untold damage to the Indigenous people of the land.

In the line of fire were many innocent Ballardong people – some of these still making their way through the corridors of the property we now see before us. Also on the poltergeist trip is a delirious soldier of war, several busy hospital aids and one scary matron.

Interweaved throughout the play are stories of civil war and turmoil, the unfair killing of innocent men, and reference, too, to the stolen generation, where Aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families to be brought up by white institutions.

The set, by Zoë Atkinson (The Crucible, Elektra), is clever in its depiction of the old hospital as a greyed-out building – an apt backdrop that allows for more colourful characters past and present, undead and alive, to pass through it. For a play that jumps from past to present and back again, such a set allows for clearly defined quarters to represent different sections of history, making it easier for audiences to know when we are witnessing something from the far past or nearer-to-now.

Downstairs is where much of the modern action takes place but it is also here where some of the spookier stuff happens: old matron ghosts rushing down to scare the wits out of modern dwellers; electronic devices turning themselves on and off; ghost children escaping through kitchen windows; and so on.

Seeing this play, I wondered why I hadn’t seen ghost stories told on stage before. I’ve realised only now how well horror lends itself to the stage. Black Swan’s audio and lighting crew must have had the best time in creating special effects to spook the proverbial crap out of the audience.

A talented cast of ten play multiple characters across the different eras in York. The adult ensemble – Shakira Clanton, Isaac Diamond, Jo Morris, Ben Mortley, Maitland Schnaars, Elise Wilson and Alison Van Reeken – are joined by young cast members, Benjamin and Jacob Narkle, and Sophie Quin, along with members of the WA Youth Theatre Company.

Not only is the acting superlative, just about every fact of this production – which has been in the making for four years – has exceeded expectations, right down to the trick lighting and fun audio. There are some surprise musical moments in the first act; its soundtrack on an early electronic tip. It’s a timely touch, what with our revived fascination in early 80s electro (hello Stranger Things).

The second act, though, gets far more serious.

Here, cast members line up to tell stories of land upheaval, chaos in the name of progress, and cruelty to the Indigenous people of this land. This part of the production is very different to the first half – which bounds in colour and action. Rather than rambunctious activity, the cast are stood still, lined up as if waiting to receive penance; solemn in their storytelling and ardent in their disgust at this horrible chapter in our nation’s past.

York is an important play in today’s post-PC climate. While cancel culture does its darnedest to cover up the blotches of racist history, it is left up to the arts – and in particular the theatre – to continue telling the horrific truths. Only then will we be informed enough to not only own our mistakes but ensure we do far better going forward.

This play needs to be seen by every West Australian.

Antonino Tati

‘York’ is presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA in collaboration with WA Youth Theatre Company in the Heath Ledger Theatre until 1 August, 2021. Tickets are available at bsstc.com.au.

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