The English and Irish diaspora to Australia has long been written about in books and plays. What perhaps is not so well-known is the French presence in the Southern Hemisphere in the 18th and 19th century. Directed by Sasha McMurray, Paul Mason’s play Divine Chaos of Story Things begins with the familiar backdrop of 19th century Paris where working class women of all perusasions – teachers, seamstresses, sex workers – were on the frontline of protesting for civil liberties. The latter half of Napoleon III’s regime was known for its leniency and equanimity, but the early years were the exact opposite. The government on the surface turned it back on all the principles of the Revolution. Draconian measures were carried out for the Communes that protested – their fate: exile to New Caledonia, a group of islands approximately 1,000 miles east of Australia. Of these women, one would make a long-term impact, well into the 20th century: Louise Michel (Lisa Moorish).
A school teacher by trade, Michel’s attitude and resolve sets her apart from her peers in the penal colony. Accompanying her are two young women – Adele (Robyn Hoedemaker), Marie (Ottilie Mackintosh), plus seasoned protestor Nathalie (Jane MacFarlane).
Mason’s play does have some superficial similarties to Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good, which deals with British settlers in Australia in 1789 and has an Aboriginal character observing the settlers from afar. Mason’s play does ‘one better’, having two of the Kanak people, the indigenous islanders (Koué – Jerome Ngonadi and Mahoa – David Rawlins) appear throughout Divine Chaos. Not only do they observing the settlers, they interact with the women and help shape events in the latter half of the play. While like much of the world, there’s a facet to Kanak culture that has a disparaging view of women, Mason highlights through the efforts and questioning of Michel, the similar ‘playing field’ to the women that the Kanak people find themselves. Denied their humanity, the Kanak people’s initial willingness to share and their silence about the male settlers abusing their hospitalty is taking as a sign by the authorities that ‘civilised’ France can treat the ‘savages’ with contempt…
The play does raise the question about Michel’s complicity in the Kanak people’s actions. By passing on what she knows of revolutionary tactics, she in effect becomes an ‘agent provacateur’, an ‘Eve’ – giving the ‘innocent’ Kanaks the ideas and means to change the immediate status quo, even though it’s a conflict they can never win in the long run. But isn’t any culture without hope, without the will to fight for its survival, dead already…?
© Michael Davis 2017
Divine Chaos of Starry Things runs at the White Bear Theatre until 20th May 2017.
Post Show Talks
Sunday 30th April; Tuesday 9th May
Paul Mason’s short video documentary Traces of Louise Michel will be shown as part of an after-show discussion, hosted by Paul Mason.