Theatre review: Whitefella Yella Tree

A tender and powerful story about love, Country, and Blak queerness

The story of Whitefella Yella Tree is really not like anything else. It feels new, it feels unique, and it feels like a story that must be told. But more than that – it is a story that must be heard. So motivate yourself to book and head to Griffin for this new Australian work by Dylan Van Den Berg because you won’t be disappointed.

It’s the early 19th century, and Ty and Neddy are two teenage boys who meet under the strange new whitefellas tree with yellow fruit to share knowledge between their mobs about this new interloper who is about to claim their land as Australia. After a rough start, a fragile friendship fruits into a heady romance. But their world is about to change forever, and like the lemons they bite into, what they are to learn about themselves and each other is both beautiful and bitter.  

At first glance the work is deceptively simple and accessible, but it soon becomes clear that there are a myriad echoes reverberating throughout. Van Den Berg layers in multiple thematic associations with apparent ease to create a narrative that becomes at once specific and tangible yet timeless. The sheer depth and variety that this work dares to approach could have drowned a lesser wordsmith but here it appears almost pared back, yet every word packs a punch.

The text is immensely clever, weaving a mix of the poetic and the colloquial and somehow managing to achieve that magic moment of storytelling where the language becomes unique to the tale unfolding before us. Costuming ensures the past and the present exist simultaneously even though the story does not move through time. It’s a beautiful and skilful piece of storytelling and staging.  

It’s a tough challenge for just two actors to create so complete a picture of this changing world but they both rise to the challenge superbly. Callan Purcell and Guy Simon portray their characters from teenagers to young men, and the subtle growth of character and age in each is a joy to behold. The opening scenes are often hilarious and Simon’s comic timing early on is perfection. Yes, it does become more moving as the show progresses, but we have grown to love these two endearing youths by then and are eager to engage with each of their often harrowing, yet strangely beautiful journeys. 

Steve Toulmin’s composition and sound design adds a great aural component to the text and carries us through the passing of time and moments of passion very deftly. I have one very minor quibble with the production and that is that the central image of the lemon tree could perhaps have been realised more strongly in Mason Browne’s raw evocative design. Even in the tight Griffin space it might benefit from being larger to anchor the sweeping themes that play out beneath it. Nevertheless, it’s representation is still arrestingly clever and Kelsey Lee’s lighting gives it great personality. 

Whitefella Yella Tree is one of those rare works that explores multiple, quite epic themes of love, Country, invasion and Blak queerness, yet does so in an immensely relatable style. It is the best of theatre writing where you feel you ‘have learned’ but did not experience ‘being taught’. Subtle, clever and straight to the heart. 

Read: $5M gift secures Griffin’s future in Kings Cross

Co-directors Declan Greene and Amy Sole have much to celebrate with this moving, nuanced production. And it is such good news that Griffin has been given the financial opportunity to expand their tiny space and encourage more new work. Particularly if they discover more with the quality of this superb piece of writing. Do not miss it.  

Whitefella Yella Tree 
By Dylan Van Den Berg

Griffin Theatre, Sydney
With Callan Purcell and Guy Simon

Co-Directors: Declan Greene and Amy Sole
Designer: Mason Browne
Lighting Designer: Kelsey Lee
Composer and Sound Designer: Steve Toulmin
Dramaturg: Andrea James

Tickets: $38-$92

Whitefella Yella Tree will be performed until 23 September 2022.

Dennis Clements is a NIDA Acting graduate and has a BA focused on Literature, Theatre and Journalism. He won the Theatre prize in his graduation year from Curtin University in WA. He has extensive leading role performance credits in both professional and community based companies, and has directed numerous productions for Bankstown Theatre Company and Ashfield Musical society. He is a registered Marriage Celebrant if you want to get hitched, and has also reviewed for Australian Stage online theatre magazine for several years.