Mirror’s Edge, written by Kim Ho, and directed by Petra Kalive, featured at The University of Melbourne’s Union House Theatre, during July and early August this year, It was a gargantuan undertaking of otherness, melding time and place into one, and in doing so, dramatically recreating historical moments that pick at the fabric of Australian history.
The drama, set in the town Sea Lake, at the shores of Lake Tyrell, is about land and the stories nested within it; Characters, fascinated by the glossy surface of Lake Tyrell, drawn in by its mysticism and compulsion, seek to ‘save’ the lake. But not all is as it seems, as the lake is not merely a natural body of water, at night, its surface peels back to produce encounters between dimensions, allowing a coordination of efforts to change its future.
A chorus of characters guide the audience through the various narratives, moving throughout different periods in time, interconnected through their geographical placement by the lake. The drama is driven by actions of those in present day Kai, Leanne, and Castor, arrive in ‘dying’ Lake Town, not long after a bus load of Chinese tourists, who have taken interest in its nearby salt lake. The main characters step into the reflective pool, and a portal opens to another time. Through the looking glass, the story spans back to 1851, where William Stanbridge, a pastoralist and, occasionally, ineffectual antagonist, exists, alongside Lao Ghit and Aoife, an interracial gay couple navigating the taboo, relative to the time, of their relationship.
As the storyline moves forward to the 1960s, the audience is introduced to university students, Jasmin and Xiao Yu, who are advocating for the use of Indigenous cultural knowledge as valid resources in scientific research. The thesis written by Jasmin as part of her studies later becomes a reference text for Kai, Leanne, and Castor.
Lao Ghit is played by Antonia Yip Siew Pin, with the complexity of a woman hardened by diaspora and alienation. As Lao Ghit pans for gold in Lake Tyrell, we see notes of tenderness escape the salt-encrusted exterior of the character, with Pin’s ethereal rendition of a Cantonese ballad. A moment which strips Lao Ghit to her most vulnerable. Emotion transcends alienation as this refrain hushes the rustling of the audience, and Lao Ghit is joined, in song, by her lover Aoife, an Irish maid.
One disappointment with the unfolding of this relationship is the on-stage kiss between Lao Ghit and Aoife. The kiss is obfuscated by a translucent screen, which doubles as the stage backdrop, creating distance between the actors and audience, perhaps as representation of a ‘love behind closed doors’, but in doing so, essentially depreciates the moment. While the gesture managed to convey a tender portrait of two women in love, it would have been better to see the culmination of their relationship take centre stage.
Relatively, the drama felt as if it was inching toward a conclusive pedagogy on diversity and cultural collaboration, but these cross-cultural encounters did not seem to convincingly explore the Western liberal ideology, which has enmeshed itself with the language of divergence and multiculturalism.
As the play progressed, questions arose about the dialogue between the characters and the land: A conversation about cross-cultural encounters is always about land—but whose land is it? , and who has the right to settle on that land?
Perhaps this was also impacted by the semiotics of the script:
“In this lake, all is glossy—the land is water, and the water is sky…”
Where place, as well as time, is elusive, can there be any true claim on the land? Is there a way to locate it? And should land on which genocide has been committed, land dispossessed, be allowed to be divorced from its horrific history?
In this story of dispossession and diaspora, Ho certainly sets up the plot to create a concept of problematical land ownership, which, at times, falls short. In defense of this, undoubtedly, a tribute to history should not preclude poetry or lyricism, which the play offers throughout.
However, at times, the lyricism may have forgotten the violence of the colonizer: William Stanbridge, though played with good humour by Martin Hoggart, offered an incomplete picture of the “pastoralist”. Stanbridge was written into the play as an optimistic expansionist, sympathetic to the stories of the Boorong people. We only encounter the original custodians of the land from behind the screen – Stanbridge being the go-between, interpreting the shadowy gestures of the characters.
As the play skips through time, toying with linearity to tell history, Stanbridge – who is often moments away from sexually assaulting his employee, Aoife – emerges as an advocate for the Boorong people. His story concludes when his proposal on the Boorong is rejected by an unnamed institutional body. A retelling which fails to implicate the coloniser in his true expansionist project.
Unfortunately, the play is not concerned with implicating or, in fact, addressing the perpetrators of violence. it is a romantic revision of history— with the true differences seemingly melting away in the mystical waters of Lake Tyrell. It chooses historical redemption through present cultural collaboration. By another name, it could be argued the interactions wedge themselves into a familiar story of “Multicultural Australia”.
The original source material which inspired Ho’s play, speaks of the value of Chinese tourists to a declining farming community. Here, the relationship between both parties are of mutual transaction—Chinese tourists see the sites, and the rural communities receive the influx of revenue from the tourism industry – although, this seems an optimistic portrayal of a mutual cooperation in foreign investment; The language of international commerce intertwined with diversity has often been a way to rationalise diversity. Lake Tyrell offers an idealistic expression of this, too.
While the play occasionally fails to grapple with the complexities of multiculturalism in Australia, there are tender moments of cross-cultural encounters that are genuinely heartfelt and poignant.
Ending how it begins, with a corralling of the cast, each taking their turn to tell a piece of the story, the play points to ideals of a more collaborative and diverse future. A well-researched and finely honed drama, there is great satisfaction to be derived from the way the various vignettes and characters inform one another, and as an ode to history per se, it successfully conveys the way knowledge and history circulates through time. And, although there may have been moments where the play could have extended its critical reach in treatment of native title, dispossession, and the rhetoric of multiculturalism, Mirror’s Edge was an extraordinary achievement by writer, director, and cast, who pulled together to present a pleasant experience.