Melbourne season: Black Diggers

The National Gallery of Victoria is next to Arts Centre Melbourne. At night, the gallery’s long grey brick walls share an Anzac story in a series of projections. It’s beautiful and huge and well worth spending some time watching. Until Sunday, there’s another Anzac story being shared in the Arts Centre. Black Diggers is beautiful, human and affecting theatre that tells some of the Anzac stories that must never be lost in the grey.

QTC. Black Diggers. Photo by  Jamie Williams
QTC. Black Diggers. Photo by Jamie Williams

The projections include paintings of the First World War, photos of the war, mass graves and stone and poppy memorials to the lost – memorials that are a short walk from the NGV. One of most powerful is a photo of Anzac Cove: a small bay with a nice beach that’s flanked by cliffs that’d leave you prepared to swim out rather than climb. It tells an all encompassing story that’s so important in Australia that it has a public holiday to remember it (and a brilliant biscuit).

Black Diggers tells some of the stories that are lost in the encompassing hugeness of the Anzac story.

Developed by the Queensland Theatre Company and supported by the Sydney Festival, it’s on a too-short tour around the country.

In 1914, Australia’s population was less than five million (not much more than Melbourne’s 100 years later). During the war, 416, 809 men enlisted; 1300 of those men (400 from Melbourne) were Indigenous. Many had family who could remember a time before the European invasion, they weren’t citizens and it was difficult to enlist when you weren’t at least “substantially European”. But they were also young men who couldn’t resist the adventure of a lifetime and the promise of being paid.

Told by nine men, young and Elders, this story starts in the early 1900s and moves through enlistment, the war, their return and their legacy. The stories are based on real people and experiences but have been fictionalised to tell the bigger story and connect to a truth that’s greater than the personal.

The bunker design (Stephen Curtis) has with an eternal flame or campfire burning in a tin barrel and black walls covered with unreadable white graffiti. As those who have gone before tried to make their mark and tell their story, the men in Black Diggers use white ash to paint names, dates and places.

Directed by Wesley Enoch and written by Tom Wright, the stories don’t judge or preach; they just tell. They tell us the heartbreaking and shameful and the uplifting and hopeful. And by sharing them with us, these stories become more than the stories of those black Diggers, they become our stories.

There are two performances of Black Diggers on Anzac Day, this Saturday. I hope that there isn’t an empty seat.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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