Edinburgh Fringe 2018
An important and engaging work exposing the legacy of colonisation in Canada – a harrowing, darkly comic tale of drug and alcohol addiction, violence and sexual abuse but also of resilience, love, and – something which is nearly lost – hope.
*Trigger warning – Huff contains depictions of suicide and child abuse that some people may find triggering. These topics will be discussed in this review.
A man appears, plastic bag taped over his head, hands taped behind his back. He will soon run out of oxygen, he tells us. As we sit, uncomfortably tense, he changes his mind and with the help of an audience member removes the bag and restraints. He asks the audience member to keep the plastic bag and not give it back to him, no matter what he says to convince her otherwise. But then he decides he can’t trust her and chooses someone else, then someone else – finally he’s satisfied with his choice. The girl in the front row promises in a firm voice that she won’t return the bag, no matter what happens.
So starts Huff, written and performed by the extremely charismatic Cliff Cardinal. It is the tale of three indigenous brothers living on a reserve in Canada. Our narrator is the middle brother, and he tells the fairy tale of how his parents fell in love, the reality of the courtship apparent despite the grandiose, romanticised storytelling. His father is cast as the Young Warrior and his mother the Beautiful Princess. Things are going well enough, both in the fairy tale and reality, until the intervention of Trickster, a supernatural figure important to indigenous cultures. Out of respect I won’t try to describe the concept here as I undoubtedly won’t do it justice, but if you’re interested in learning more I found this to be a useful resource. In this particular tale, the Trickster is presented as a malicious joker who wishes the couple ill and disrupts their happiness at every opportunity. Despite the efforts of the Beautiful Princess’ mother to pull them out of the darkness, things go downhill for the family from there.
Often shocking and difficult to watch, Huff tells a story that tragically could come from any marginalised indigenous culture, including my native New Zealand or temporary home Australia. It brings to mind the films Once Were Warriors, Rabbit Proof Fence and Samson and Delilah – these are not the same story by any means, but are similarly tales of oppression and dysfunction caused by a society that doesn’t seem to care. The impact, both on society as a whole and on individual people (in this show, the two young heroes of the story) of the history of widespread state sanctioned murder and oppression, the spread of disease local communities have no immunity against, the introduction of alcohol and other addictive substances, the forced removal from long-held areas of land or and the poor education (such as the Canadian government policy of forcing indigenous children away from parents to be sent to boarding schools) cannot be understated. This show doesn’t attempt to engage directly in this overarching history or politics, but the ramifications of these events is everywhere in this tale of one family.
When their mother dies at her own hand and their father immediately moves his new girlfriend into the family home to the dismay and anger of their maternal grandmother, the two younger boys retreat into their own world where talking animals are commonplace and sniffing glue and dangerous strangulation games are harmless fun. Everything is a joke to them – they hide their older brother’s porn collection and tease him for having Foetal Alcohol Syndrome as their mother drank while she was pregnant with him. Their inability to comprehend consequences – as evidenced by their accidental arson – or to talk about their trauma in a meaningful way – they can’t discuss their mother in any sense other than occasional macabre jokes – comes back on them when something happens that is finally too much for them to repress.
It’s difficult to watch such hard hitting material delivered in such a light, comedic tone but it’s undoubtedly effective. A scene of sexual assault and violence is almost too hard to bear but how dare we look away when this is the reality for children?
Cardinal is a fearless actor, and in the hands of a lesser talent this show could come across as unnecessarily shocking or brutal. His charm, sincerity and comic timing, particularly when he plays all the other characters in the family, make us laugh while we cry, the impact on us all the more effective.
Huff allows us to see the hope and possibility for redemption in the darkest of tales. If you, like many people I know, were taught at school about the glory of the empire of Great Britain and nothing about the consequences, I urge you to educate yourself about the other sides to the story and the ongoing impact on indigenous communities in America, Canada, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand (the list goes on) – not as a blame game but as a way of promoting much needed education, empathy and action. Huff would be a great place to start – in my opinion, a must see.