Saturday, January 13, 2024

Big Name, No Blankets - Sydney Festival


Big Name, No Blankets by Andrea James with Anyupa Butcher and Sammy Butcher (founding member of Warumpi Band).  
Sydney Festival production, Ilbijerri Theatre Company at Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney Theatre Company), January 10-14, 2024.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Opening Night January 12

Writer: Andrea James; Cultural Consultant: Sammy Butcher
Co-Directors: Dr Rachel Maza AM & Anyupa Butcher
Music Director: Gary Watling
Cinematographer & Sound Designer: James Henry
Sound Arrangements & Composition: Crystal Butcher
Sound Arrangements & Composition Mentor: David Bridie
Set Designer: Emily Barrie; Lighting Designer: Jenny Hector
Costume Designer: Heidi Brooks; Video Content Designer: Sean Bacon
Animation: Patricia McKean & Guck; Dramaturg: Amy Sole
Producers: Nina Bonacci & Alexandra Paige
ConsultantsTheatre: Sarah Goodes; Creative: Lisa Watts
Production Manager: Nathan Evers; Stage Manager: Celina Mack
Assistant Stage Manager: PJ Rosas & Kira Feeney
Audio Engineer: Daniel Lade

Warumpi Family Consulting: Suzina McDonald & Marion Burarrwanga
Pikilyi painting entitled Yuparli Dreaming by Eunice Napangardi
Yuparli Tjukurrpa (Pikilyi) song sung by Reenie Robertson


Baykali Ganambarr (Sammy)
Googoorewon Knox (George)
Teangi Knox (Gordon & drums)
Aaron McGrath (Brian & Ensemble)
Jackson Peele (Neil)
Cassandra Williams (Suzina, Mum & Ensemble)
Tibian Wyles (Ian, Ensemble & Understudy)

Core Band

Gary Watling, Jason Butcher, Jeremiah Butcher, Malcolm Beveridge

The idea of a play within a play is always stimulating for going into unexpected meanings.  Big Name, No Blankets is fascinating because it is more an opera within an opera, as the musicians from Papunya tell their own story of their Warumpi Band through their own music.  Opera is often thought of as the most complete art form, in the European tradition of grandiose stage settings, costumes, music, with the story told through song and choreography, usually with minimal spoken dialogue.

The Warumpi Band was begun by Sammy Butcher in 1980 and established an Australia- and World-wide reputation, for their Central Desert interpretations of Rock&Roll, Country and Western, and Desert Reggae, influenced by Midnight Oil for its central political theme, expressed in the finale in this show, with the whole audience standing up and singing Stand Up And Be Counted for indigenous land rights.

This video set design is not grandiose, but has its own grandeur taking us visually on Warumpi’s journey from the Haast Ranges and around the world.  

Yet the story, told with terrific impact by, in his quiet way, Baykali Ganambarr as Sammy, and in an almost over-the-top way by Googoorewon Knox as George, turns out to be a kind of rags-to-riches tragicomedy.  You’ll come to understand what humbug money is all about.

You will feel the strength of Country for these people.  And the real meaning of Call my Island Home – for Saltwater Man, George from Elcho Island (so different from Desert Country); and even for Australia as a whole when that song was used for the opening of the Olympic Games in Sydney in 2000.

Big Name, No Blankets is a truth-telling work of theatre art from people described by the National Museum of Australia this way:

Papunya was established as a government settlement in 1959, when Aboriginal people came in from the desert. Settlements such as Papunya were established by successive Australian governments under the controversial policy of assimilation. They aimed to socialise Aboriginal people into a European way of life.

We felt in the audience filling the Sydney Theatre Company’s Roslyn Packer Theatre at the world premiere of Big Name, No Blankets that it’s time now for assimilation to go the other way, for all of us to benefit.  As they sing, It Doesn’t Matter Wbat Your Name Is – we are all one at heart, with the same need for our place in Country, the same depth of sadness as people pass away too soon; and the same sense of humour as both the exuberant George and the peace-maker Sammy.

If a Festival should bring together our people’s memories and look to the future with resilience and a sense of purpose, it’s all there in the Warumpi Band story Big Name, No Blankets.