The best storytelling comes from showing not telling… that is using action (or lack of, as the case may be) to reveal the emotions intended to be interpreted by the audience. Awareness of this is at the core of Hannah Belanszky’s mainstage debut work Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like from its very outset as in her directorial debut, Roxanne McDonald (in co-direction with Queensland Theatre’s Artistic Director Lee Lewis), confidently allows us to sit in the play’s uncomfortable silence that comes from a father and daughter meeting again after years of estrangement.
Retreating from a recent tragedy and in seek of insight as to aspects of her identity, city girl Joan (Matilda Brown) arrives on country for the first time for a long weekend visit with her father Mick (Michael Tuahine), a man of few words, but regular routines. We feel their distance by the stilted conversation of his forthright answers and the silence that hangs over scenes where, for example, we literally listen to a kettle boil. It’s a clever device through which we learn as much about Mick’s character as any dialogue could deliver, and it then provides some big early laughs from our knowing what is really meant behind his seemingly straightforward questions and comments. And as things continue through a later game of scrabble and the sounds of meal preparation, the audience is given respectful credit through hint-at rather than over-tell of the story.
Things deliberately slow along through the first half of the almost gothic play as solid performances from Tuahine and Brown trail us through talk of Mick’s long work days fixing fences on a nearby property and Joan’s determination to not have come all this way to sit around the house by herself. That is until Shakira Clanton enters as Mick’s partner, the feisty, fearsome and immediately-likeable Pattie.
Clanton’s loud, tell-it-as-it-is delivery is pitch perfect. As Pattie’s almost every comment comes across as if coated in an accusation, she still makes the character warm and lovable in her authenticity, and as the story concludes towards the emotional heart of things, she shows a range of emotions in testament to her versatility and talent. Indeed, while the work is filled with the light touch of many funny moments, such as Joan’s talk to the river about an ill-fated self-tanning incident, it is also both tense and tender at times, in not only its exploration of family secrets and a familial relationship fractured by time apart, but also its bigger-picture universal thematic consideration of land, family, courage, culture and connection.
The production’s creatives work in equal contribution of the element of land to its storytelling. David Walters’ lighting design motleys the Bille Brown Theatre stage with river blues during a moving monologue from Pattie that hints as to why the river is a taboo topic to Mick. Like in last year’s First Casualty, dynamic composition and sound design by THE SWEATS has us hearing the remote country of the unnamed small river town breathing before we see it, later adding upon the landscape’s evocation and stunning soundscape of bush sounds with perfectly-timed realisations of fishing lines plopping and yabby traps splashing into the river of Mick’s enigmatic warnings. Chloe Greaves’ set design also works to establish the dryness of the setting of the brittle communication of father-daughter re-connection, with all on-stage action appropriately occurring outside. Topographic map lines backdrop the weather-beaten old house that is a part of its land, and you can almost feel the heat as Joan swats flies aside on first approach to its porch.
As is discovered when its apparently cumbersome title’s meaning is revealed, the 2018-2019 Queensland Premier’s Award finalist (which was initially scheduled as part of Queensland Theatre’s 2022 season) is a beautifully written, intimate celebration of voice from an exciting new First Nations playwright. Don’t Ask What the Bird Look Like is a deeply layered, poignant story of a family brought together, yet also torn apart, by tragedy, built around its embrace of the quiet moments of everyday conversations, seemingly simple but yet also not so, in the way the life rarely is. While it initially drags a little in some of these early deceptively small moments, their ultimate absorption means that the 100 minutes (no interval) of its duration also seems to fly by. This is a rich and unique production with a deep and meaningful universal truth at its centre… because there is a lot of history in that unseen river.