Watercolour landscape artist Albert Namatjira (1902 – 1959) leant how to paint under the tutelage of white Australian Rex Battarbee, who exhibited paintings at the Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission where Namatjira was born and raised. Namatjira’s paintings raised in value from being essentially worthless, to commanding hundreds of guineas; his work was famous globally; he became the major support for over 600 family members; he was the first Indigenous Australian to be granted citizenship – so he could be taxed on his income, but he was still refused the vote.
The story of his life is brought to the stage by Big hART, a Tasmanian based company which works in art and social change. Their work is predicated on embedding themselves into communities, to work with people on the issues that face their lives, to create art, share stories, and leave a lasting impact.
Starting performances with Company B (now Belvoir) in 2010 and now on a national tour, the work was developed with the permission and discussions with Namatjira’s decedents, and is part of a broader project which encompasses a watercolour exhibition, community development in the Western Aranda communities, and workshops in Central Australian schools in digital literacy and filmmaking, to just touch on a few aspects of the project. More can be discovered on the show’s website.
After seeing the work, the remarkable thing about the play, and the thing I feel least equipped to write about is how Scott Rankin’s script and Trevor Jamieson’s easy delivery in the lead performance tell Namatjira’s story with an air of easy irreverence. I say “an air” because the work isn’t actually irreverent at all, it tells a story with some very sombre moments with respect; and yet the work is embedded with a light heart, a joy in its step, and is proud to carry the glint of a tear and sadness in its eye.
Rankin’s production feels eminently like a series of conversations. The conversation and respect for communication which came through development with the Namatjira family breathes its way through the whole work.
While I would have loved to have seen the work in an intimate theatre (read here about the “swarming” that happened at Malthouse last year), Jamieson and c0-performer Derek Lynch still fill the 1000 seat Her Majesty’s with warmth.
We’re introduced into the space with artist Robert Hannaford painting a large portrait of Jamieson. When the house lights go down, Jamieson turns to his audience, and introduces himself.
Wertai. Trevor, Trevor Jamieson… See how I managed to get my name in the first line? Clever. ‘Wertai’ is Arendt for hello. So now I’d like you to try it, say ‘Wertai.’
This communication continues through the play. While Jamieson and Lynch take on different characters, the essence of the work never deviates from these interstitial scenes where Jamieson converses directly with his audience. And in these scenes where Jamieson is presenting to us another character – a German missionary, Battarbee, an ancestor or descendent – the communication is still there in this communication of craft. He holds with himself a confidence in his characters and his performance, which is nicely paired against the youthful enthusiasm of Lynch.
There is an ease of familiarity between the actors, both enjoying sharing the stage and the audience, and that communication builds on the communication with the audience. They refer to each other by first name; they share laughs and smiles with each other and with the audience.
Then, on stage the whole time there is musician Genevieve Lacey playing various recorders in her own conversation with the work, the actors, and the pre-recorded sound; Hannaford, sketching away pictures of the performers; and three descendents of Namatjira, who spend the duration of the play developing the large chalk backdrop to the work. As our picture of Namatjira is built up through the performance, so to is the literal picture of the familiar world he would paint.
And then after the work is ended, the curtain call has happened, and the house lights are brought to half, a short film plays about the creation of the work: more communication.
While these aspects of the communication are thanks to Rankin’s direction, the true heart of the work, its strength, its communication, is in its text. Through world of the play, theatrical and embracing of its medium, the air of irreverence which I previously spoke about shines through. Rankin, though Jamieson, has simply sat his audience down to tell us a story: as simple and as complex as that may be.
Surrounding this storytelling is the beauty of the theatre. Genevieve Duggard’s set, a carved wooden sculpture in a form evoking sandstone rock formations wouldn’t seem out of place in a contemporary art gallery yet is every bit as functional as a set piece. There is an inherent theatricality in chalk as an artistic medium, as the backdrop to the work is built up again each performance. Nigel Levings’ lighting acts in modulations of emotion throughout the work: from the use of spots and highlighting, through to a disco ball lighting the theatre. The sound design by Jim Atkins mixing composition by Lacey, choir voices from Ntaria Ladies Choir, Jamieson and Lynch’s beautiful live vocals, and sound elements which feed directly into the story bring another element of life to the work.
At the end of the evening we’ve been shared something special. A story of a man who found himself with an incredible talent, and the joys and struggles which it brought, yes. But also, the glimpses of the stories of the creators who brought this story to us. A couple of hours of what feels like honest communication; and the hope we can keep on communicating after the evening is gone.
Adelaide Festival Centre presents Big hART’s Namatjira by Scott Rankin, created with the Namatjira family. Set design by Genevieve Dugard, composition and music director by Genevieve Lacey, costume design by Tess Scholfield, lighting design by Nigel Levings, sound design by Jim Atkins. Musician Rhia Parker, scenic artist Neil Mallard, landscape artist Elton Wirri, and choir sounds from Ntaria Ladies Choir. With performers Trevor Jamieson and Derek Lynch, portrait artist Robert Hannaford, and artists Lenie Namatjira, Gwenda Namatjira, and Albert Namatjira Jr. At Her Majesty’s Theatre until May 12 (today). More information and tickets.
Namatjira The Exhibition, Artspace Gallery, AFC, until May 27. Wed, Fri-Sun 12noon – 4pm; Thursday 12noon – 8pm. More information.
National tour continues to Ntaria and Alice Springs (NT), and Townsville, Mackay, and Rockhampton (QLD). More information.