First Fleet (2019), Review

2 minutes read
First Fleet
21 July 2019, 3:00pm


Doesn’t God dream of forgiving our sins?

In what is perhaps fitting in this bicentennial year, First Fleet is a tale of colonial exploits and exploitation. While convict transportation to the colonies was nothing new for the British Empire, this fleet was the first to embark on the zealous task of starting a penal colony in Australia. Serving in this fleet is Lieutenant Ralph Clark, who is charged with rehearsing a play, Molière’s Tartuffe, with a group of convicts. It is this intriguing episode that First Fleet explores with great intelligence, sensitivity and rousing passion.

First Fleet is a production with a relentless belief in the affinity of the human spirit with art, and the human being’s boundless capacity for reformation. These topics are debated at length, with different characters coming to represent different positions on these subjects.

Major Ross is played by Mia Chee with a villainy so convincing and gleeful that she resembles the Trumps and Johnsons of an exhausting political reality. She is tired of being shafted to handle human “garbage”, who lie beyond any hope of redemption: “Criminals were born to commit crime, they’re different from us,” she declares. Others, such as arts enthusiast Lieutenant Clark (Timothy Wan) and idealist Governor Collins (Neo Hai Bin), are defenders of and believers in art and its ability to reform human beings.

The play itself moves between the convicts’ rehearsals of Tartuffe, the navy officers’ discussions of the absurdly humane treatment of the convicts, and the backstories of the convicts themselves. The rehearsals are, particularly in the beginning, a hilariously stilted and overacted riot; but as they progress, the audience observes the emergence of an unbridled idealism that seems to come naturally to the actors and directors of this ensemble. The animated discussions on understanding character motivation, the importance of authenticity in theatre, and the merits of Shakespeare and Marlowe all have a rather meta resonance for this audience of formerly colonised theatregoers.

There is an utter inhabitation of these ideas on the part of the members of the Nine Years Theatre Ensemble, and there is a lived believability to their enthusiasm. The strength of this ensemble — their harmonious movements as a unit on stage and their emotional synchronicity — makes a strong case for the use of actors who train systematically and produce works together over a longer period of time.

There is nothing groundbreaking in the content and premise of this production. But First Fleet is still — for this reviewer — entirely overwhelming. In a world dominated by draconian legalities without mercy, and religion that has lost faith in the ability of human beings to be redeemed, this is art that defiantly maintains the belief in compassion and the human capacity for betterment and renewal.

One leaves First Fleet convinced of this: that one may see goodness yet in this land of the living. This is art worth working towards.

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