There was a time when Indigenous performance was anathema to the market. Worthy, but not exactly a fun night out! Two Aboriginal festival directors “ Stephen Page in Adelaide and Wesley Enoch in Sydney “ have toyed with First Nations shows. But it’s taken the whitefella Iain Grandage in Wadjuk “ formerly known as Perth – to take the bull by the horns and throw all his eggs in the first week of this year’s Perth Festival into the Black basket. ‘Bennelong‘ (reviewed in 2017), ‘BuÅ‹gul’, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ and a Noongar version of ‘Macbeth‘ not only challenged the status quo but delighted the box office.
Insightfully, I’d written some 30 years ago when ‘Bran Nue Dae‘ first thrilled audiences in Perth suggesting that the West Australian capital had advantages over its eastern equivalents in that more people moved backwards and forwards between bush and city in the West and therefore had fewer preconceptions about the ‘purity’ of Aboriginal life, more sense of its reality. Indeed, when BND hit Perth, little old white-haired ladies leapt to their feet at the end to hail this charming actuality of life in Broome. In Sydney, serious younger persons worried that traditional music was missing and Christianity had somehow sullied this remote world.
I wonder how it went in Sydney this year?
In Perth, a comparable piece of pioneering was ‘Hecate‘, the all-Noongar ‘Macbeth‘. Unless you’ve spent time amongst the Yolngu in Arnhemland, you probably have little idea about being in Australia yet finding your English a minority language. Yes, language revival is going on all around us “ though Gadigal may well be an exception in Sydney. And, despite Grandage’s efforts in his festival catalogue to remind his fellow Wadjukians that everywhere there has a Noongar name, that spoken language is hardly a lingua franca amongst the 30,000 odd Noongar people. So, a 6-year project led by the play’s director Kylie Bracknell was required to find the words to tell a 90-minute version of Shakespeare’s saga as well as skilling up a cast of nine to handle that language naturally on stage.
And what better source material than the Bard. The Perth Festival was fortunate in distant times to see performances of a trilogy of Shakespeare plays directed by Ong Ken Sen from Singapore, presuming on our knowledge of the plots sufficient to appreciate a variety of traditional Asian performance styles that he employed to reinterpret them. In ‘Hecate‘, we saw what we thought we knew, but also got taken into an Indigenous world by subtle changes to both character and plot so that what was once all about a social-climbing Scottish couple brought to earth by their own hubris now gains a spirit of the Earth who cares nought for them but seeks to reconnect the tipsy-topsy world of men and women with Country.
Hecate, of course, is a pretty minor character in the original; indeed, experts believe that her out-of-place style of speech – just two of them – was added by Thomas Middleton rather than being writ by Shakespeare himself. As queen of the witches, though, she has a seniority that made sense to Bracknell, who has created an omnipresent figure “ invisible, but capable of making her songs heard by people as Rover Thomas’s dead mother did when she delivered him the Goorirr Goorirr song-cycle. Now, Hecate saves Banquo’s daughter Fleance (not son, as in the original) from his assassins, thus setting her up to take over the state as predicted by the witches from the start. Della Rae Morrison gives her an ethereal quality that stands out from a very serious Macbeth (Maitland Schnaars) and a tough, sexy Lady Macbeth (Bobbi Henry).
Oddly, the were many more laughs than you’d ever hear in an English production of the play. I wasn’t certain whether this resulted from deliberate humour in the translation, the essential physicality of the acting needed to indicate story developments to non-Noongar speakers, or, perhaps, an inherent aspect of First Nations story-telling which resulted, for instance, in Banquo’s lumbering ghost popping up several more times than Shakespeare felt necessary.
Oddly, Kylie Bracknell was quoted as saying that “to present a Shakespeare text or work in an endangered language will not mean very much to most people”. I and Ong Ken Sen would beg to differ. And so, I suspect would Kyle J Morrison who pioneered the whole Noongar/Shakespeare thing by taking the Sonnets in Noongar to London for the Bard’s recent quatercentenary, and appears in multiple character roles in this. But the director went on, “The real work that has been done with this project is the language resurgence amongst Noongar actors and creatives, which empowers them individually and collectively to have a piece of ancient knowledge that belongs to them, that they have not had fully until this time.
It surely also gives credence to language study off the stage “ though I gather that Noongar elders who’d been denied access to their language during assimilation times felt a little threatened by this new generation moving on so dramatically. Outside the theatre, a sand mandala created a Kambernap space where young and old could meet before and after performances to smoke each other and talk.
But was it a great ‘Macbeth‘? Almost inevitably not. It was something entirely new. But, in time, there will be great Noongar dramas incorporating stories of their land and history, and perhaps involving the sort of ceremonial that was the essence of ‘BuÅ‹gul‘, the offering from the Yolngu of Elcho Island that’s touring Australia’s festivals generally this year.
I use the word ceremonial deliberately, for there was a time, less than 30 years ago, when an urban-orientated Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council denied that ceremony could ever be art which they might subsidise. Clearly, the combination of the manikay songs sung by Dr G “ the late, great Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu “ with the dances that would accompany them on the sands of Galiwinku, with (or without) the western orchestral enhancement added to Gurrumul’s last record, ‘Djarimirri‘ “ is art. But, more vitally, it was bringing something of the ancient and complex traditional culture from the far north to our southern cities. An all too rare event.
In fact, it’s so rare, I sometimes wonder whether there’s a policy to keep this glorious drama out. For, it’s where I came into Aboriginal culture, at one of the great intertribal dance festivals on Groote Eylandt in the remote Gulf of Carpentaria in 1985. Tribal groups came from as far south as Uluru, from the western Kimberley and the eastern Cape York. There were about 5 non-Indigenous viewers including myself, for the week-long festival was all about showing their cultures to each other. For a novice like myself, the short, sharp explosive dances, biting into the sand of the arena, were marvellous to watch but almost impossible to understand.
What happened in ‘BuÅ‹gul’ was marginally different “ understanding was greater, for each of Gurrumul’s tracks from ‘Djarimirri‘ now has a title and notes. Also the bold simplicity of the voice, clapstick and yidaki of the Arnhem original has been augmented by an orchestral accompaniment that offers the familiarity of Steve Reich’s minimalist ostinato and, occasionally, the harmonies of the Indonesian gamelan that arrived in Arnhemland well before Reich with Makassan traders. This then affected the dance “ which needed to go on longer than the original outbursts, and perhaps softened something of its pungent earth-related sensibility in the process.
But the important thing is that it was there in Perth (and elsewhere) and was wonderfully appreciated. Hopefully, there will now be demand for more of the original ceremony, so that as co-director Don Wininba Ganambarr commented, It’s time to really sit down and listen to our mob. Has anyone created such a profound tribute to an octopus before “ in ‘Ngarrpiya‘ “ offering also the possibility of understanding the links between the eight Yolngu clans that match the totemic creature’s legs. This appreciation was then matched by film of a young dancer embracing the new music on Elcho, and enhanced by Yumutjin Wunungmurra’s artwork shown with the dance.
The idea of mutation as culture travels from the far north to the south in ‘BuÅ‹gul‘ was matched for entirely different reasons in the revival of Jimmy Chi’s musical ‘Bran Nue Dae‘, 30 years after its debut in Perth. The difference here is the new professionalism of First Nations actors, singers and dancers. Coming largely out of Broome originally “ apart from ageless Ernie Dingo in the role of Uncle Tadpole, which he replays huskily today “ there was a naÃ¯ve freshness about performances which has diminished as actors go through WAAPA and the Aboriginal Centre for the Performing Arts in Brisbane. I don’t know where Marcus Corowa trained, but his Willie made a perfect love-foil for Teresa Moore’s WAAPA-trained Rosie “ and I imagine both must be front-runners for casting in the marvellous rap-musical ‘Hamilton‘ when it hits Sydney next year.
BND is still a great show “ especially with the addition of the once-rejected opening song, ‘Acceptable Coon’, with its bitter line, Australia’s just churning out prototype Whites. But I must admit I expected a more radical remake in the hands of the Opera Conference as producers. Perhaps that was never possible with Andrew Ross, the original director still in charge. His Associate, Naomi Pigram, from the family of Broome musical royalty “ dad Steve wrote many of the numbers with the late Jimmy Chi – surely added some greater Indigeousness, such as the historical images of chained Aboriginal men and what is surely a new line, But people die in jail to a scene where a night in prison formerly carried no threat. And that was matched by a refreshing increase in the number of Aboriginal faces in the audience.
Pretty few of them, though, around the visual art scene where Iain Grandage’s torch-bearing adoption of the Noongar word Karla “ fire, especially campfire, and therefore the home “ for his festival first week was carried forward by the Fremantle Arts Centre, Curtain Uni, DADAA (emphasising accessible arts) and Art on the Move “ but not by the Art Gallery of WA (which did offer the wonderful virtual work from the Amazon, ‘Awavena‘ by Lynette Wallworth) and the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts.
In Freo, the Arts Centre positively buzzed with the wild world of John Prince Siddon. But then it was calmed by a collection from the Mangkaja Art Centre in Fitzroy Crossing of works on paper from the 90s by the late Butcher Cherel Janangoo. This offered a delicate balance of the angry desert man from the cattle industry and the riverman with his calm heart in men’s law ceremony.
Amazingly, all of Prince Siddon’s works were painted this year “ only 37 days old when the exhibition opened. So he’s right on the nail with regard to Australia burning, animals dying despite what he portrays as their best efforts to extinguish the fires, domestic violence still happening, and its Prime Minister going missing. Under the title, ‘All Mixed Up’, the cowboy who lost a leg on a cattle drive and became an artist, is offering the best and worst of both Walmajarri and white worlds in brilliant technicolour. ‘We mixed up, tru, he asserts. Let’s keep it that way. But what is the emu saying into Scomo’s ear? And will he hear it before the show closes on 22nd March?
In the background, two generations of stockmen in the Siddon family still hurt about Bob Hawke’s 1968 Equal Wages case. When we all got laid off, they left us on the fringes in camps and told us not to worry, that the government would look after us. That’s where we have been ever since.
A much more urban take on displacement comes in Noongar artist Sandra Hill’s ‘Mia Kurrum Maun‘ show (‘Far from Home‘). Two generations of stolen girls with the much-loved Carrolup School of art in their veins results in ironic art that features the ideal Noongar young woman in a variety of assimilationist settings. Hill herself was taken away at the age of 6 in 1958 while her father was away doing military training and deposited in a home for the rescue of near-white children “ less than a quarter-caste to be trained in domestic service. Now she’s repaying her trainers with her accurate view of the kitchen, the ironing-board and the ideal marriage to a monochromatic white man who’ll give her monochromatic children. On until 24th April at the John Curtin Gallery.
Meanwhile, the once-monochromatic drawer, Dion Beasley with his ‘Cheeky Dogs’ has added colour to his repertoire “ but not much. Salon Projects in Darwin have brought him to Perth in an extensive show of canine works from his home at Canteen Creek, which includes a map that might be seen as having a resemblance to Hundertwasser’s Viennese art. Much fighting, a multi-story dog-wagon to extract unwanted strays and a work with no fewer than 38 hounds delight with their essential truthfulness and wit. Beasley moves on to the internationally Indigenous Biennale of Sydney next month.
Artist: Yumutjin Wunungmurra, John Prince Siddon, Butcher Cherel Janangoo, Dion Beasley, Sandra Hill,
Gallery: Fremantle Arts Centre ,