COOK: An Exploration: La Mama
COOK: An Exploration is a confusing traipse through Australia’s ‘black’ history, with the production team wilfully ignoring that it is essentially an audio play or history show with the baubles of live theatre attached to justify its presence on the stage.
Taken from his original journals, Peter Finlay has adapted Captain James Cook’s exploration of what he came to name terra nullius, a land uninhabited. The ramifications of this phrase are felt to this day. What at first seemed to be the main thrust of the piece turned out to be the only thrust, the text laid bare, the echoes and meanings painfully obvious, and the audience were left to witness the staging of a talking book.
Finlay seems to have had some idea of what he was trying to achieve in his adaptation, a touch on the naivety of so called ‘civilised’ people, the character of Cook trying to comprehend the native people of the land so that he can dominate them. But any sense of nuance is lost in the bizarre direction by Strangio, which leaves certain passages spoken with inexplicable randomised vigour, with no emphasis on any particular thought or idea.
Finlay is unable to achieve a Yorkshire accent. That’s fine, the actor has to memorise sixty plus minutes of script, let alone saying it in a perfect British voice. The decision should have been to drop the accent entirely, rather than trying to muddle through an attempt that frequently garbled the meaning of certain words.
La Mama is an intimate space, so using poorly made costumes for a period show is lazy. The audience are clearly able to see that his clothes, including his frock coat that Cook tediously takes on and off to represent every time his character goes to shore, is made of a cheap polyester material, and drove me to distraction. Same goes for the shoes that were again poorly put together.
The approach to the script seems to have taken on that certain smugness that has crept into many historical plays lately, from the MTC’s Realism and The Colours. It’s the taking for granted of hindsight, saying that we, as members of the privileged white middle upper classes, know better than our naive, stupid, brutal predecessors. What was most irritating about this play was not so much Cook’s repeated surprise at the natives’ lack of clothing and what that means to him as an English gentleman of a certain time, but the sycophantic, knowing laughter of the audience watching. “What an ignorant little Englishman”, both the play and the audience seem to say. You wonder if the purpose of a play such as this, though maybe not entirely intentional, is to salve the guilty wounds of post-intervention white Australia. “Well,” we say, “at least we’re not as bad as that.”
COOK: An Exploration: La Mama
September 9 to 20
Wed – Sun 8pm, Sun 6:30pm
La Mama Theatre
205 Faraday Street, Carlton, VIC
Adapted & Performed by Peter Finlay
Dramatised & Directed by Laurence Strangio