Second Helping: North Melbourne Town Hall

A veteran teacher and a young student teacher debate the ways of teaching Aboriginal history to students. The matronly teacher insists on teaching the classic textbook variety of history, with the notion of an ice bridge from Asia being the original path taken by the First People. Discontent with this take on events, the student teacher – an Aboriginal woman - instead defends her method of teaching Aboriginal history, which involves helping students using dance to understand the spirituality of the animal world. Reaching a stalemate in their dispute, the two combatants do the only sensible thing: stage an almighty bitchfight to the throbbing tunes of Michael Jackson’s Beat It, and assume ridiculous confrontational poses seen only in Tarantino’s Kill Bill and Alexandra Gardens during early morning Tai Chi. As you do.

This unusual non-sequitur represents the high point of bizarreness in this collection of sketches, Second Helping. Second Helping is a performance with an unorthodox ancestry. The show was conceived during a series of dinners hosted by Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation (ANTaR) which attempted to address the question of what reconciliation meant to ordinary people. From the fragments of stories, ideas and anecdotes which came up over dinner, the director John Harding saw the potential for a stageplay to bring these accounts to life.

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-A. said…
Many recent portrayals of black-white relations in Australia have been on safe ground, noble and earnest in their ambition but often syrupy and sentimental in their execution. Second Helping very deliberately avoids this pitfall. The writing shows a keen eye for the Australian sense of humour, and gently pokes fun at the variety of characters that the sketches portray. Whilst the usual suspects are parodied – redneck whitefellas, Christian missionaries, John Howard – the show also quietly mocks characters at the other end of the social and political spectrum: a protester at an anti-Iraq War rally; the dense bureaucracy of local governments and land councils; a first generation Italian migrant.

The sketches progress at a dizzying pace. With a cast of only four, and many sketches involving at least three of them, it puts a tremendous strain on the performers. It is a testament to their skill that they can create interesting and identifiable characters within a couple of seconds of starting each sketch. The cast are able to portray a variety of characters from the Australian landscape, both black and white, with subtlety and humour. Early in each sketch a small murmur would ripple through the crowd as the audience found a spark of recognition in the character being portrayed, whether it was simply knowing the type of person being portrayed, or indeed having someone in their own lives whose characteristics they could see before them. Such is the crispness of the writing and performing that the audience can feel that they know a character whose existence only lasts for the few minutes of a sketch.

In her short speech on opening night, producer Megan Evans mentioned that the play had enjoyed a remarkably short preparation time of just three weeks. Despite this, and the limitations of small-budgeted community theatre, the attention to detail remains high. At the back of the set is a screen that serves a dextrous array of purposes, varying with each sketch. For some, the casting of red, yellow and a golden brown light evocatively creates the tones of the Australian outback, whilst in other sketches effective shadow acting helps bring the story to life. Perhaps most effectively, though, the screen is used for projections of imagery associated with a sketch, making the streets of Northcote, the rocks of the red centre or the history of Rottnest Island appear all the more vivid. Lighting Operator Rebecca Adams and the team of Video Producers deserve special credit for their creativity which complement the sketches perfectly.

During the 1990s, there was a buzz surrounding reconciliation, with our national discussion reaching a consensus on its importance. Since 2000, though, it has dropped off the radar of public debate and been overshadowed by other issues, which are perceived as being more tangible and immediate. Whilst part of the reason was no doubt the intransigence of the government on this issue, perhaps part of it was also the humourless indignation of many of the advocates of reconciliation who portrayed it – pardon the pun – as a black and white issue. Second Helping seeks to bring the issue back on the agenda, not with the smug earnestness of past generations, but with fresh ideas, a sense of humour, and an acknowledgement of the petty hypocrisies which afflict us all.

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