With the ubiquity of Indigenous cultural practice today, you just can’t put on a festival without it.

That bold statement by the non-Indigenous Iain Grandage, newly arrived as Director of 2020’s Perth Festival (7th Feb to 1st March) would be warmly endorsed by Wesley Enoch, the well-ensconced Noonuccal Nuugi Director in Sydney (8th to 26th Jan). Strangely, that great supporter of Aboriginal theatre when at Belvoir, Neil Armfield, now co-directing the Adelaide Festival doesn’t seem to acknowledge that essentiality “ finding room only for the nationally-touring ‘Bunggul‘ in his Adelaide Festival next year.

Grandage has certainly hit the ground in Perth running, having, he tells me, made it clear in his interviews for the job that Indigenous stuff would be front and centre in his festivals, with First Nations artists firmly in the building. And the result “ the whole first week of a Perth Festival themed under the Noongar name of Karla or Flame is dedicated to Aboriginal work. Future festivals will go down the river (Billya), out to the ocean (Warden) and finally up into the stars (Djinda). And just in case patrons don’t realise what’s happening, every suburb where a festival event is taking place is given its original local Noongar name.

My Associate Artist, Kylie Bracknell, who’s teaching us all, believes this is an intrinsic and necessary introduction into the festival, explains Grandage. Did you know that the CBD actually has 5 or 6 different Noongar names? And with only 400 of the 40,000 Noongar people still fluent speakers, perhaps both Indigenous and non-Indigenous have much to learn.

And what better place to start than a fully Noongar version of ‘Macbeth‘ “ or ‘The Scottish Play’ as the superstitious Grandage insisted on calling it. Bracknell has reduced this lengthy English text to a brisk 90 minutes, centring attention on Hecate “ as the play’s now called “ the unsighted head witch in the original. Here, she is at the heart of everything watching as Macbeth strives toward power at any cost, all the while knowing that order must be restored; that Country always trumps human ambition.

This may be Australia’s first Indigenous translation of a major Shakespearean work for the stage, but his sonnets in Noongar were performed in London for the Bard’s 400th anniversary a few years back. And the late Tom E Lewis took ‘King Lear‘ apart more recently, but in English. And way back in 1997, Rhoda Roberts gave us ‘Waiting for Godot‘ in Bundjulung!

Plenty of the Yolngu language will also be heard in Perth, Sydney and Adelaide as directors Don Ganambarr and Nigel Jamieson pay tribute to the late Dr G (Gurrumul) in a ceremonial ‘Bunggul‘ that gives both dance and visual art form to the singer’s last record, ‘Djarrimirri‘. This an all-too-rare appearance of traditional culture in our southern cities, perhaps reflecting Iain Grandage’s direct experience of conducting concerts with Gurrumul in the past and recognising the cultural importance of his roots in classical manikay from which his music sprang.

Other projects shared between Sydney and Perth in 2020 include a reprise of the wonderful West Australian musical ‘Bran Nue Dae’, first seen in Perth (by me) 20 years ago. Broome’s Pigram family are making sure that Jimmy Chi’s creation retains its Kriol essence despite the incongruous fact that it’s being toured by opera companies “ the Australian and the WA! And then there’s the fast-selling ‘Black Ties’, an Aboriginal and Maori collaboration about a transracial wedding that stands every chance of being ruined by the couple’s extended families. It’s guaranteed a long life with bookings all over New Zealand, plus festivals in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Where once Australia’s festivals craved exclusivity for their big shows, now, as Wesley Enoch put it to me, It’s more important to back First Nations shows right across the country. Being just one of one or two shows places such a burden of representation on our artists.

And while Enoch hasn’t dedicated a specific time-period to First Nation work, he has a section of the program called ‘Blak Out’ “ meaning Blak In! This includes three new plays “ ‘The Visitors’ which attempts to imagine how the people on the land viewed and discussed those tall ships that popped up in 1788; ‘Black Drop Effect‘ examining contested views about Capt. Cook’s legacy out at Bankstown; and ‘Black Cockatoo’, about the cricketer, Unaarrimin, aka Johnny Mullagh, who lead the first Aussie team against England when our nation-in-waiting wouldn’t recognise their rights “ or even their humanity “ when they returned home. Written by Geoffrey Atherden, it’s directed by that fine contemporary cricketer, Wesley Enoch!

And he may turn up too during events on 25th January “ Enoch’s ever-developing eve of Australia Day celebration “ processing to Barangaroo for ‘The Vigil’ and an encounter with ‘Proclamation‘, the 250 flags designed by members of the public to reflect their take this country, 250 years after Lieutenant Cook (as Enoch prefers to call him) planted another country’s flag on Possession Island. Actually, the invitation to design a flag (now closed) was so popular, you may see 500 of them flapping on their poles!

And all this before we get to the visual arts in both festivals. Sydney finds space for installations by Reko Rennie and Daniel Boyd at Carriageworks; interventions by Blak Douglas, Karla Dickens and Jason Wing in the gun emplacements that British colonial authorities built to keep anyone else out at Middle Head; Vernon Ah Kee’s art about Palm Island out at Campbelltown; and a 30-year survey of Fiona Foley’s work at the National Art School called ‘Who are these strangers and where are they going?’. The title comes from a new work, a soundscape based on the oldest known Aboriginal song documenting the first sighting of Cook in 1770 by Foley’s ancestors, the Badtjala people of K’gari (Fraser Island).

Dynamic Blak and probably controversial work. Interesting to compare with Perth’s Indigenous visual arts program in a State where I’ve always felt the connection between city and bush, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal was that much closer than Over East (as they refer to all that was once New South Wales). So pride of place goes to John Prince Siddon from The Kimberley, described as a visual magician, skilfully weaving the cycles of seasons, the brutality of nature and ancient stories of his Walmajarri heritage into a vivid collage of personal observation translated on to various surfaces such as tin, plywood, print, 3D carved artefacts and animal skulls. Accompanying Siddon will be goaches of the old master from Mangkaja Arts, Butcher Cherel, in a selection by Linley Nargoodah. From Tennant Creek comes Dion Beasley, winner of this year’s Australia Council National Arts and Disability Award, who’s ‘Cheeky Dogs‘ are a delight for young and old. And back in suburban Perth, Noongar artist Sandra Hill finds herself ‘Mia Kurrum Maun‘ (Far from Home) as she represents the displacement of generations of Indigenous women in the cities of the south.

It’s interesting to reflect on the relative prominence that Lieut. Cook gets in the two festivals. For Wesley Enoch he had to appear in this controversial 250th anniversary year of his belated ‘discovery’ of Australia, mainly to straighten out the fact that so many Aussies conflate Cook’s colonial exploration with Phillip’s foundation, when in fact the two never met. As WE Stanner said all those years ago, ‘We’re all into the Great Australian Silence’, Enoch reminded me, all invested in a forgetting of history and therefore into myth-making. And as Sydney was ground zero for the colonial project, we have to be the prototype for a response.

Iain Grandage in Perth, meanwhile, is dismissive of the Lieutenant: The Dutch kept running into West Australia long before Cook came along. So our job is to celebrate the breadth of the cultural identity that predated them both, which, of course, continues to exist.

Blak Out
Perth Festival