Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Namatjira by Scott Rankin: Big hART at Belvoir St.

Namatjira by Scott Rankin.  Co-directed by Scott Rankin and Wayne Blair.  Big hART at Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, until November 7, 2010.
Trevor Jamieson    Photo: Brett Boardman
Reviewed by Frank McKone, October 19.

Following their highly successful production in the 2008 Sydney Festival of Ngapartji Ngapartji (reviewed in The Canberra Times Thursday 17 January 2008), Big hART and Belvoir Street continue their series of Indigenous cultural projects in Namatjira.

Pitjantjatjara speaker, well-known performer Trevor Jamieson plays the man the general public knows as Albert Namatjira, attracting a friendly joking comment from an elder of the extended Namatjira family who gave permission for this presentation of their famous grandfather’s life story.  “How can a Pitjantjatjara man do an Arrernte?”

Very well indeed, in my view. 

Rankin’s writing tells the story plainly, allowing plenty of emotional space for the miming, dancing, singing, language and characterisation skills of Jamieson and his young performing partner Derek Lynch to be shaped into a major work with co-director Wayne Blair.  I am reminded of Wayne Blair’s own work as a performer in Wesley Enoch’s 2003 production of Richard Frankland’s Conversations with the Dead.  It seems to me that there is a continuing strength of development in Aboriginal theatre, which I expect will go on being supported so well by Belvoir as Neil Armfield steps down in favour of Ralph Myers, whose work on Conversations was noted in the Canberra Times review (August 21, 2003).

But it’s not just important to see Namatjira placed in its Indigenous theatre context.  This play sits just as firmly in the context of non-Indigenous Australian theatre, because of the place Albert Namatjira has as the first Aboriginal person to be classed as an Australian citizen.  It was at this pinnacle of success that his downfall began.  This story is a tragedy which I found hit home just after the last line was spoken as the lights took the focus from the entertaining performer to his painted portrait which faded “Into the blue.”

This play for both cultures works so well because the central theme of the story is the remarkable relationship which grew over a lifetime of the two men, Elea – whose European first name, Albert, was arbitrarily given him by the German pastor at the Hermannsburg Mission combined with a mispronunication of his father’s totemic name as a surname – and Rex Battarbee, damaged physically and mentally as a young soldier in World War I, for whom painting watercolours was his only way of surviving.  In this production itself, writes Rankin, “Every layer of the project is dependent on the strength of the foundation formed with both the Namatjira family and Rex Battarbee’s daughter Gayle Quamby.  If this new performance piece resonated with audiences it does so because of the generosity of these families in contributing their stories to the research for the play, and their support for the broader Big hART project.”

There is no doubt, at the performance I witnessed, that this play resonated with all the culturally mixed audience (even German speaking friends of mine thought Jamieson’s pronunciation of German as the Pastor was “funny” – as, of course, it was meant to be).  For me, one of the great successes was to see Aboriginal people making biting satire of Australian institutions, right up to the Queen, but especially of speeches actually made by society women sponsors of the arts praising Albert Namatjira, to unrestrained laughter and applause throughout the audience.  It made the hypocrisy with which he was treated over his attempts to buy his country back, and finally the circumstances of his jailing, so much more poignant.

To my mind, this kind of theatre takes us in a new direction.  The move towards the end of last century to support community theatre rather than nothing but flagship companies is coming home to roost.  Here we see top-class quality performance, design and technical theatre used to bring people together into community across old divides.  Big hART refers to their work as “projects” because they are more than presenting plays on stage for people to sit back and watch.  This play engages us in coming to know the families in the story and to understand the reality of our own history.  We see Kevin Namatjira, Albert’s grandson, chalking the backdrop images of the Macdonnell ranges in his grandfather’s tradition.  From the next generation, Elton Wirri works with him.  There are some paintings on show in the foyer, but if you go to Alice Springs (Mparntwe) you can visit the Araluen Arts Centre and see the works of Albert Namatjira’s extended family as I did a few weeks ago, as well as works by Rex Battarbee and a portrait of Namatjira by Alfred Cook, painted in 1940, showing us a strong and forward-looking man as he was then, rather than the sad figure of his last years. 
Derek Lynch     Photo: Brett Boardman
Kevin Namatjira       Photo: Brett Boardman
You can follow up Big hART on 03 6423 4577, at or email .  For political action, there is to be a rally organised by the Stop the Intervention Collective at Sydney Town Hall on Friday October 29, 12 noon.

Belvoir Box Office: (02) 9699 3444.

Namatjira will be seen in Canberra at The Playhouse, September 14-17, 2011.