The Namatjira Project, to give it full due, might just be as significant a bridge between blackfella and whitefella as the now fading memory of the march across the coathanger, or even the apology. It mightn’t have the mass profile, but it has all the ingredients for exemplifying what can be achieved, given a little leeway on both sides.
That Aboriginal people are still prepared to cut us any slack, let alone the generous amount they do, after the sheer cruelty we’ve perpetrated against the likes of one of the country’s greatest artists, is breathtaking testimony to their equanimity and biblical capacity for forgiveness. What makes such forgiveness possible, I suppose, are individuals of the ilk of Reginald (‘Rex’) Batterbee, an incapacitated digger who taught Albert how to see with European eyes, to augment his own vision of country.
The man we know as Namatjira wasn’t named Namatjira at all; rather, this was the best approximation of his father’s name the German pastor at Hermannsburg Lutheran mission could muster. Nor was he Albert; rather, this was the familiar appellation imposed on him by same. He was Elea, a Western Aranda man, here played, somewhat incongruously, but oh-so-successfully, by Pitjantjatjara man, Trevor Jamieson, who looks very much like being my inaugural nominee for Curtain Call‘s Performer Of The Year, which won’t get you so much as a free junior burger at Maccas, but is worth it’s weight in gold in greenroom cachet. He is an archetypally well-rounded actor: narrator; player of numerous key characters (including Battarbee, the pastor and Namatjira senior); dancer; singer; mime. In none of these does he lack: he’s at all times charismatic and never have I seen anyone play both sides of a conversation so convincingly and unflinchingly.
Jamieson looks especially good thanks in no small measure to creator, writer and co-director (with the omnipotent Wayne Blair) Scott Rankin, who’s written a piece that is sympathetic, insightful, meditative, warmly comical and incisive, without ever being prickly or offensive, given Jamieson’s ability to soften the written blows with the utmost charm.
Jamieson’s highly-talented ‘sidekick’ is Derek Lynch, who matches the first in physical performance skills and is a riot in drag, a petal on his mettle, not least as QE2, Namatjira’s sweetheart, Robina and a social butterfly.
The stage was also graced by descendant, Kevin Namatjira, grandson of Albert’s tenth child, who surreptitiously populated the monumental chalked mural of the MacDonnell Ranges with tree after tree, during the course of the work. Before the lights dimmed, Robert Hannaford tweaked a lifelike portrait of Jamieson.
Other elements that make this as affecting a work as it is include Nigel Levings’ seamless, unobtrusive lighting design, Genevieve Dugard’s marvellous set (including a carved, wooden centrepiece deeply evocative of the rugged majesty of the outback) and Genevieve Lacey’s sensitive composition, featuring Nicole Forsyht’s violin, which wends its way through the story so delicately. But all the craft in the world is to no avail without expert technical support, which comes from Jim Atkins’ sound design, Nicholas Higgins’ technical direction and Jessica Smithett’s stage management.
Namatjira is a gentle story of a gentle man, much abused. Like the man’s eventful, all-too-short life, it’s full of surprises (there’s even a cameo role for Barry White and The Unlimited Love Orchestra, as Albert woos Robina), albeit gentler ones than many to which Albert found himself subjected.
This work reminds us of all that theatre can be; of its broad church. It reminds us, too, that theatre can be and inspire deep feeling, in a subtle, rather than boldly visceral way. Perhaps most importantly of all, it tells one man’s too-little-told story, one emblematic of the story of this continent, over the last 200 years or so.
Finally, noone more eloquently depicts Namatjira than Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker), as in her eponymous poem.
Aboriginal man, you walked with pride,
And painted with joy the countryside.
Original man, your fame grew fast,
Men pointed you out as you went past.
But vain the honour and tributes paid
For you strangled in rules the white man made:
You broke no law of the your own wild clan
Which says, “Share all with your fellow-man.”
What did their loud acclaim avail
Who gave you honour, then gave you jail?
Namatjira, they boomed your art,
They called you genius, then broke your heart.
Curtain Call rating: A+
The details: Namatjira plays the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir Street until November 7. Tickets on the Belvoir website.