Review | ‘Mutiara’ explores dark history of Broome’s pearling industry

Mutiara | State Theatre Centre of WA | ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ 

As I write this I am aware that all performances of this production are sold out, as they deserve to be. This is the first performance I have reviewed this festival season that has played to sold out audiences and it is thrilling to me that this is the case for Marrugeku’s Mutiara.

Mutiara tells a story that draws on 100 years of history between the First Peoples of the Kimberley and the workers of the Malay diaspora connected through Broome’s pearling industry. In the creators own words, “Taking a window from the 1870s when early free diving practices were entwined with the slavery of Indigenous peoples, the dangerous and brutal conditions of the industry continued through decades of exploration of indentured Asian workers to the early 1970s.”

It was clear from the audience numbers that there is strong community support for this story to be told. If one of the purposes of art is to provoke emotion then this performance certainly excelled, leaving me squirming in horror and despair.

The performers themselves were powerful and mixed varieties of traditional and cultural dance with more modern styles. At times, when all performers were on stage it was very difficult to know where to look, for fear of missing something. It became clear I had been oblivious to the barbarous history of pearling in Broome.

The realities of it, savagely illustrated by the sound bites used and the real-life footage and testimony has made sure I will never forget it. In fact, the laboured breathing had the effect of forcing you to feel the weight of the diving helmet on your shoulders as your lungs grew tighter and tighter.

In all honesty, there’s a lot to unpack. I urge everyone to do their own research. If we don’t know better we cannot do better and sadly, one of the thoughts I was left with was that we haven’t progressed as a state or a nation far enough for the themes to feel unfamiliar. I don’t mean in the pearling industry (I have no knowledge on that) but generally, in our treatment and regard for our own First Nations peoples and Indigenous peoples worldwide.

Although immaculately performed and with high level technical details this production was like a punch to the solar plexus. It was definitely an enlightening and educational experience and the wealth of information imparted in sixty minutes was impressive. A highly-skilled production.

Mutiara is playing as part of Perth Festival. You can find the full program here.

Kate Salinger-Hatter is a proud PFLAG+ Perth Mum, with a once upon a time background in dramatic arts. Kate enjoys writing and photography and active resistance of oppression. 

Images: Prudence Upton

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