Review: Matriarch, Yirramboi Festival

Sandy Greenwood’s masterful performance brings four generations of women to life in precise, dazzling detail.
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Sandy Greenwood’s characterisation of four different characters – Nan, Gran, Mum and herself – is shockingly precise. Image: supplied.

What do you take from your ancestors – who do you ‘take after’?

Inheritance is a heavy and sometimes difficult thing. Actor and playwright Sandy Greenwood’s one-woman show explores both the power of cultural inheritance and the pain of intergenerational trauma through four generations of Gumbaynggirr women in her family: Gran, Nan, Mum and herself.

Matriarch impressed audiences at Melbourne Fringe Festival 2018 and earned Greenwood a Green Room Award for best performance. Greenwood – who has Gumbaynggirr, Dunghutti, and Bundjalung ancestry – grew up on Gumbaynggirr Country at Bowraville Aboriginal Mission and has worked in film, theatre and television across Australia and the United States.

Greenwood’s masterful performance is what holds the room. Her characterisation of the four women is shockingly precise. Whether she is playing her great-grandmother, an unflappable, playful Goorie midwife named Elizabeth Taylor; or her mother, Lauren, as a wide-eyed, tender-hearted girl on the Mission before being snatched away by government officials, Greenwood completely inhabits each role. Her vocal control is particularly impressive as she shifts through the accents and intonations specific to each character at different stages of their lives. Each voice is distinct and compelling. She gives us Nan as a loved-up young sweetheart, as a grown woman who is disappointed but resilient when she’s left to take care of 14 kids alone, and as a mother utterly devastated when those children are stolen. The moment when the children are taken drew all the air out of the theatre.

Simple, unobtrusive lighting and set design give the writing and performance space room to shine. Plants, props and artwork – both projected and painted onto the floor – bring the coastal landscape of Gumbaynggirr Country onto the stage. Sean Ryan’s live musical accompaniment adds depth and texture alongside recorded soundscapes. Greenwood wears a black spandex jumpsuit over which different costume pieces and accessories help to demarcate characters, but it’s really her performance doing the heavy lifting.

The writing – by Greenwood and Oliver V. Cowley – is deft, a naturalistic blend of Gumbaynggirr and English that feels accurate to each time period. Through Greenwood’s expert characterisation, segments in which the audience is addressed directly flow seamlessly into those that keep the fourth wall intact. The only exception is a short rap from the actor’s own perspective as a fair-skin Blak woman, which, while powerful in itself, felt like a sharp tonal break from the surrounding scenes, though perhaps that is intentional.

Otherwise, the play crafts a potent sense of lineage, both in the sense of a broader cultural inheritance – having a place in Creation – and in the more personal sense of having your grandmother’s figure, your dad’s colouring, and your mother’s pain. Ancestral trauma is both as acute as Lauren’s palpable distress when she’s taken from her family, and as epic as the Red Rock Massacre of the 1880s, still remembered in the body.

Despite dispossession and the most explicit efforts of the Australian state at enacting genocide, Greenwood demonstrates how one walks through the world bearing the full weight of this inheritance.

4 stars out of 5: ★★★★

Jinda Productions
Performer, Writer, Producer: Sandy Greenwood
Live Song & Music: Sean Ryan
Writer & Producer: Oliver V. Cowley
Sets, artwork, props and costume: Miimi & Jiinda and Sean Ryan
6-11 May 2019
The Butterfly Club
Tickets $30-$34

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