Two packed houses get shot in the arm from the play, Namatjira

Laughter, more than tears, tells this foundation story of black-white relations.

 

REVIEW by KIERAN FINNANE

 

What did we feel coming away from the show of the theatre production, Namatjira? That things will get better, that they are better – between black and white Australians and for Aboriginal people themselves. And this was despite the sad, even bleak last scenes that show the unrelenting pressures on famed Arrernte watercolour painter Albert Namatjira as he tried to manage his success in the white world and his position within his own large family and wider clan; and despite our recognition that these pressures in many ways are unchanged today.

So how better? By the very fact these two outstanding Aboriginal performers, Trevor Jamieson and Derek Lynch, and all their collaborators, are able to trace this foundation story of black-white relations through laughter, more than tears, and through a rich narrative, not ideology, sentiment and slogans. And by the fact that they have drawn sell-out houses around Australia; that 850 people, mostly remote community residents,  traveled into Ntaria / Hermannsburg  for the staging of the play there last Wednesday night; that Araluen sold out two shows on Saturday and could probably have sold out a third. We are hungry for this – being able to laugh at ourselves, at our collective foibles, clumsiness, ignorance as we deal with one another, being able to rejoice in the creativity and friendships that bridge the gaps. For the revelatory story of the show is the friendship (much more than mentorship) between Namatjira and the World War I veteran turned artist Rex Battarbee – the ways that art opened up possibilities for them both, became the bridge between them and the ground for a friendship that endured.

It is a wonderfully spirited piece of theatre. Jamieson has us in the palm of his hand from the opening minutes, speaking as the performer, not Namatjira, inviting us to join with him as kind of co-conspirators in this often hilarious journey into the past that continues to have such resonance today.

With a light touch he gets us to laugh off ‘politically correct’ frameworks. Why don’t we use beautiful Aboriginal names for our children, he asks. Would we need to ask for permission, have a ‘welcome to name’ ceremony, get advice from an Indigenous cultural protocols consultant? In an instant we all recognise how crippling these perhaps well-intentioned procedures have become, how we can all be more real with one another. We’re with him.

This is something of a change from the approach in Ngapartji Ngapartji, which was often mocking of its majority whitefeller audience. But in common with that earlier production from Big hART, the play draws out the connections of its core story to goings on in the wider world, both then and now.

Battarbee’s own story, before it intersects with Namatjira’s, is given warranted dramatic attention. The play is interested in what it is that opened this man to the possibilities of a genuine and creative friendship with Namatjira. We learn that an Aboriginal man was a significant figure for him in his boyhood in country Victoria. We are given a glimpse of his ordeals on the battlefield in France, which left him permanently disabled, and the difficulties he faced on return to civilian life. Art gave him a way forward, just as it would for Namatjira.

We are less enlightened by the play’s treatment of the missionaries at Hermannsburg. This is not because they are caricatured, for everyone is caricatured – with warmth and humour. Even Namatjira, known for the dignity of his bearing, is mostly caricatured as naive, sometimes confused and often deferential. But the play, which takes its factual background seriously, gets wrong an important fact about the German Lutheran missionaries, which was their attitude to the native language of their congregation.

Carl Strehlow was the missionary in charge when Namatjira’s parents arrived at Hermannsburg and we know that within a month of arriving at the mission he was using some Arrernte in his sermons and soon acquired an astonishing grasp of the language. In this he was following in the steps of the first of the Lutherans, Pastors Kempe, Schwarz and Schulze, who had translated hymns into Arrernte, were teaching Scripture to Arrernte children in their own language and had an Arrernte language primer printed after only two and a half years of contact.

This tradition was continued by F. W. Albrecht, who arrived at the mission in 1925 and preached his first sermon in Arrernte a year after. This embrace of their language would have influenced relationships between the missionaries and Arrernte people enormously and is likely to have been enabling of more mutually respectful relationships generally, such as developed between Namatjira and Battarbee. The play, which wants in its own way (that is, engagingly for a broad audience) to convey complexity and to ask important questions of us about our history, is the poorer for not acknowledging this. Instead the relationships with the missionaries are rendered as stiff and confused, nigh on impossible across the cultural divide of three broken languages. This is something that Big hART will want to get right before taking the play, as is being planned, to Hermannsburg in Germany, from where the original Lutheran missionaries hailed.

This was the only jarring note for me. Jamieson and Lynch are simply superb entertainers in so many registers, moving with extraordinary ease between them. After Jamieson’s opening drollery, Lynch swept us away with his beautiful husky voice singing a sweetly sad song in Arrernte; one minute, with a gesture and a change of accent, we were with young Battarbee in country Victoria; the next, with little Albert and his parents in the bush; soon we were on the battlefields in France; then back at the mission in drought time. And in between we had Jamieson, as our narrator and guide (informed by a long process of script development with Namatjira’s descendants), drawing out the point, questioning, joking.

Then, biggest treat of all, we had their song and dance acts, one a disco-style love song with Lynch as Albert’s heartthrob soon to be wife, Rubina; another, a foot-tapping country and western number, that neatly gave account of the role of black stockmen in the developing pastoral industry. Lynch’s various cameos as society ladies and the ultimate, the young Queen Elizabeth, ran a close second for sheer delight. There would not have been a person in the house who wouldn’t roll up for an evening’s entertainment by this pair.

They could probably have carried the show on their own but that is not the Big hART way. This is a company, led by director and writer Scott Rankin, that wants to have quite a lot going on. Two of Namatjira’s descendants, the artists Elton Wirri and Kevin Namatjira, worked throughout on a vast and beautiful drawing of the Western Arrernte landscape as if in moonlight, white chalk on black, perfect as dramatic backdrop for the entire shifting narration. Towards the front, to the right, a portrait of Jamieson as Namatjira took shape before our eyes at the hand of artist Robert Hannaford. Music on a variety of stringed and wind instruments was played by Genevieve Lacey, augmenting with just the right eloquence the mood and pace of the drama. The Ntaria Ladies Choir were also on stage throughout, singing several songs, and never has their music moved me as much, its mournful tone seemed so apposite, as during the final moments of the play, as we watched Namatjira’s decline.

This was great theatre. You could feel the audience thoroughly gripped by the highs and the lows, invigorated, uplifted … a shot in the arm from Big hART at a time when we certainly need it.

 

Pictured, from top: Derek Lynch (left) and Trevor Jamieson, with artists from the Namatjira family in the background. Photo by Grant McIntyre.

• Lynch as Rubina, with Jamieson’s Albert. Photo by Brett Boardman.

• Kevin Namatjira at work on the landscape backdrop. Photo by Brett Boardman.

• Lynch  as one of Namatjira’s children singing in a Christmas scene. Photo by Brett Boardman.

All photos courtesy Big hART.

 

See also Kieran Finnane’s interview with Scott Rankin about Big hART’s social change agenda.

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