Is the mischievously entitled ‘Natives Go Wild’ our first Indigenous cabaret? The Sydney Opera House’s own Head of First Nations’ Programming, Rhoda Roberts has written this bitter sweet entertainment and found a cast that actually has more of a Pacifika than Aboriginal feel, I believe. I can’t be certain because the only program for the show is online! How can you send people into a show and not allow them to know who is performing, who’s directing, etc?? Or am I just being old a fuddy-duddy about having to go online on my phone in the theatre to obtain such essential information?

But the important thing is that while we are being delighted by such entertainments as a gay Maori haka, some silly audience participation, aerial contortionism and pretty basic machete juggling, the moral purpose behind Roberts’s story is of the exploitation of Indigenous people from this region in the circuses of America as savages, wonders and freaks. Many died on the job, others never had the freedom to return “ though we never learnt how their recruitment occurred.

‘Australian Cannibal Boomerang Throwers’ was one Barnum & Bailey headline act! ‘Feejee Mermaid‘ another. Old photos of these ‘stars’ frequently accompanies the show “ none more intriguing than the Aboriginal man who became the Spaniard, Col Colleano in order to headline as ‘The Wizard of the Wire’, and occasionally ‘The Toreador of the Wire’ “ enough to justify some rather naff Spanish dancing to accompany his heroic tale. For it didn’t end in tragedy like the others, but, somersaulting to fame, ended in a dignified retirement in Florida as an American citizen!

So “ was the justifiably serious content of untold truths from our history in danger of being overwhelmed by the ‘Blanc de Blanc’ style of amusement, which certainly went down very well with the opening night audience?

In the case of the ‘Feejee Mermaid’, it certainly didn’t. A tropic song from the Bearded Lady was indubitably tender rather than mocking, and the production of the mermaid’s (apparently) mummified corpse “ as displayed by the sensitive PT Barnum after her death “ was revealed in the carny jargon as a pickled punk; a fake made up from half monkey and half fish.

Switching persona and costumes constantly, our Maori ringmaster was a delightful guide to this energetic show. His asides alone were worth the price of entry “ encouraging one to concentrate fiercely! And the ceremonial tone at the beginning in which the cast was smoked suggested that the 90 minute evening wasn’t going to be all fizz. As an aside from me, the fringed lap lap worn by both this ceremonial smoker and the lively Fijian strong and songman was a distinct improvement on the daggy numbers worn by most remote Aboriginal dancers and could be considered for further development.

At the other end of ebullience to the ringmaster, the sad Aboriginal clown maintained his persona delightfully throughout, even when padded up to do a mock striptease. The ‘Little Nugget’ was also a dab hand with a stockwhip, and managed to escape from a straight-jacket both symbolically and physically as a list of the prohibitions enforced by the wittily entitled ‘Aboriginal Protection Act’ was read out.

So the essence of circus with a touch of burlesque was certainly all around us, and the exploitative history undoubtedly powered through. But, at times, it was a tightrope walk between the two, with Colleano doing somersaults!

Url: https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/natives-go-wild-playbill