Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Performing Haunting Histories: A Psychogeographical Reading of Two Site-Specific Performance Projects on Rottnest Island

Academic journal article Australasian Drama Studies

Performing Haunting Histories: A Psychogeographical Reading of Two Site-Specific Performance Projects on Rottnest Island

Article excerpt

In August 2013, two site-specific performances on Rottnest Island challenged the audience's sense of place by transforming a holiday destination into both a theatre of memory and a theatre of psychogeography. Open House and After Dark, devised by playwrights Julia Jarel and Helen Munt, in close collaboration with the Rottnest Island Authority, were presented in the tradition of site-specific theatre.1 The productions re-enacted memories and events, not as historical truth and factual evidence, but as a means of shifting perspectives and unearthing responses, allowing the audience to experience past, present and future possibilities of the island. The roving performances explored hidden spaces and forgotten times, transforming and challenging the cultural and political views of the audience and their understanding of the history of the island.

This article uses the Situationists' concept of psychogeography to frame an analysis of these two interpretative historical performances on Rottnest Island. Competing histories emerge when Open House literally unlocks heritage cottages and offers visitors a theatrical re-exploration of hidden pasts, while the play After Dark invites audiences to a roaming performance that interprets locations on Rottnest through the presence of characters associated with different periods of its history. Both projects explore the interplay of place and actors, history and presence, as well as human agency and nature, thus rewriting dominant historical narratives in the context of heritage tourism.


Rottnest Island, 18 kilometres to the west of Fremantle in Western Australia, has a long and multi-layered history. Referred to by the local Indigenous people, the Noongar, as Wadjemup,'Place of Spirits'2 or'Place Across the Water', it was separated from the mainland approximately 6,500 years ago3 and was uninhabited by humans until European colonisation. Nevertheless, it remains a place of cultural and spiritual significance to Aboriginal communities across large areas of what is now referred to as Western Australia.4 As soon as the Swan River Colony was established in 1829, the island came under the settlers' control, and was initially used for land grants, before being chosen as a site for a penal colony. Between 1838 and 1902 it was a penitentiary, receiving more than 3,670 Aboriginal prisoners from all over Western Australia. When the Aboriginal prison was officially closed in 1902, Rottnest Island continued to serve as an annexe of the main state prison at Fremantle, resulting in the presence of prisoners on the island throughout World War I, when the island was also used intermittently as an internment camp and a military training ground. During World War II, Rottnest again became part of the coastal defence network, before reverting back to its pre-war use as a holiday destination.

These days the island serves as a tourism destination in accordance with its gazetting as a 'Class A Reserve' which has (as one writer observes with regard to other heritage and tourist sites) to some extent 'closed down ... the multiple meanings of certain sites'.5 Although Rottnest Island has (apart from some essential services providers) no permanent population of note these days, it attracts between 450,000 and 550,000 visitors per year, mainly from Western Australia.6 Most associate the island with carefree holidays and regard it as their playground. Nevertheless, the site-specific performances of haunting histories, in foregrounding the island's time as a prison island - which accounted for nearly 400 black deaths in custody - serve to unsettle the leisure industry's facade.7


Edward Said interprets such multi-layered, 'subtle and complex' views and multiple uses of any one terrain as evidence of'unending cultural struggle over territory, which necessarily involves overlapping memories, narratives, and physical structures'. …

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