It was only in late 2017 that Barbara and the Camp Dogs made its Sydney debut.
Now embarking on a national tour, this fierce, uproarious and beat-thumping mob is again bowling over audiences. On this night, they were met with a full house and a standing ovation.
Directed by Leticia Cáceres, Barbara is a work of modern Indigenous rock & roll theatre, fuelled by a furious rebellion against colonial violence and its legacy, and carried effortlessly by actors Ursula Yovich (Barbara) and Elaine Crombie (René). Yovich is also the play’s co-writer, producing with Alana Valentine a script that earned them a 2019 Premier’s Literary Awards nomination.
In the program note, we learn that Barbara burst into life in 2008, appearing as a spontaneous alter-ego Yovich slipped into while regaling some post-awards partygoers. “This was a version of First Nations female power to conjure stereotype-busting magic with,” Valentine recalls thinking.
Track forward a decade, and Barbara was officially let loose.
While Barbara and René call themselves sisters, technically, they’re cousins. Barbara’s mum handed her two young kids to her sister then disappeared into the long grass, and her dad came back only to claim his son.
Now the sisters are grown up. One scrapes a living singing ’80s covers at casinos, while the other makes trouble, gets into fights and runs from her problems.
Barbara can’t keep running forever though. Her mum is sick, and she’s all the way up in Darwin. After finagling a gig on a yacht to earn their passage, Barbara and René are hurtling towards the hot muggy north and into the past.
Up there and then in her home town of Katherine, Barbara must confront all the hard truths she’s tried to shrug off with drink, defiance and devil-may-care attitude.
While the play’s name implies a one-woman show, this is really a story about family, about how kin infuriates and challenges us, as much as it can heal and keep us grounded in a sense of who we are.
In the play’s Indigenous context, this message is compounded and entangled with a mess of other realities – the forces of state, society and history that have sought to rip up and tear apart First Nation communities and families.
Occasionally slipping in and out of other guises – a policeman, a security guard, their dying mum – Yovich and Crombie embody their characters with rough, raw conviction.
Yovich nails Barbara’s wicked vulgarities, her strong-headed spirit and dangerous edge, and – particularly in the latter half of the play – her ruling, roiling grief.
Crombie is a force to be reckoned with, capturing René’s proud womanhood, her flirtatious sexuality, and her struggles to keep her sister from spinning too far out.
Spoken or sung, the voices in this play refuse to be silenced, civilised or made to play nice. The script also refuses to comply with the ‘lucky country’ myth, or call colonial theft of land, culture and language anything but.
After a particularly harrowing scene of police brutality against an Aboriginal elder and mother of Stolen Generations children, Barbara, swaying on top of a table and gazing levelly at the audience, calls Australia the cruellest country in the world.
Not that the play is anything close to a ‘white guilt campaign’ – that rebuttal rolled out any time the longstanding version of history is held to account. For the most part it’s boisterous, full of cheek and heart.
Chloe Greaves’ costuming is choice, and a focus of comic delight. It’s tactfully tasteless when it needs to be, and brazen too, with Barbara ripping off her skinny jeans five minutes in to reveal the shortest short-shorts you’ll probably ever see. There’s also some inventive swaddling of saris, and the sight of the two astride a motorbike and hack car, like the entourage Mad Max forgot, is priceless.
Setting the mood
Stephen Curtis has transformed the Upstairs Theatre into a grungy pub rock venue, scrapping the typically formal separation between audience and players. A thick red-patterned carpet rolls under the first row of seating – some of which includes bar stools and battered armchairs.
Those in the cosy chairs come under the same wash of stage lighting as the performers, so that interestingly, the real-time response to the play becomes part of it. On opening night, the group in my sightline was made up entirely of young white men.
If they’re not a real band, the guitarist (Sorcha Albuquerque), drummer (Michelle Vincent) and bass player (Jessica Dunn) might consider becoming one. The fact that they’re non-Indigenous is pointed out jokingly at intervals with the line that as live musicians, the system has them pretty fucked as well.
Barbara and the Camp Dogs is a journey to be witnessed, one with bite, ballads, bangers and belly laughs.