Photos – Brett Boardman
The life of any artist can't easily be condensed into two hours of stage time in a theatre, without a certain amount of significant material being passed over.
When you take the elements contributing to the life of an Indigenous Australian artist during a historic period of massive discrimination by the majority against the minority there are many fine lines to take into consideration and most of them not painted on a canvas.
Creating a feel-good rendition of Indigenous artist Albert Namatjira, the first Indigenous citizen of Australia, is only one part of a broader packaged deal when one looks closely at the Big hART treatment of the man and his legacy; the ever enterprising company Big hART are seeking to build capital into the descendant family of the artist and have even brokered the delivery of an App into the world that assists people to paint like Namatjira.
The Arts Law Centre of Australia have some very interesting material on-line about the ownership of Namatjira's work – in his Writer and Director's note, Scott Rankin says "(Big hART are trying to) make a difference to the copyright issues surrounding Albert's work." So it is probably a positive step being taken towards redressing an imbalance that has been around far too long.
The stage production is a respectful piece of work that finds space to introduce some interesting elements into the live theatre mix including Brecht's well worn political theatre reminder that we are all watching a show in a theatre; using sign posts a little more subtle than Brecht's.
Rankin says, "It's like being in an artist's studio," because non-traditional theatrical activity borrowed from the multi-media supermarket with a little reality television thrown in (by way of burlesque) appears in the form of a portrait being painted in real time of the actor playing the artist; so indeed it is like being in a studio. There is also a sort of 'afterword' screened at the very end, after the curtain call I encourage you to remain and watch.
The cast includes artists Robert Hannaford (who paints the portrait pre-show and during the interval, and otherwise sits reading or sketching), and Kevin Namatjira and a collection of Hermannsburg School of Water-Colour Artists who perform on rotation throughout the tour of the production.
These other artists contribute to an atmosphere of living art without much artifice through the production by working with white chalk on the vast blackboard backdrop panels; they are real human beings and are introduced as such, in some cases with a shy wave to the audience. They also provide the distraction of activity in the background for any wandering eyes. They are also direct links with the artist, his descendants.
Trevor Jamieson and Derik Lynch are the actors who take the roles of the various people involved in Namatjira's life, with Jamieson performing mostly as the artist and Lynch realising a collection of roles that include the young Queen Elizabeth and Namatjira's wife, so there are laughs a plenty to be had from the campy moments of cross-dressing and the 'real' asides between the two actors pointing to these theatrical conceits.
These are laughs the play would be denied if it were more rationally cast with a male and female actor instead of two men, and I think it relies very much on these types of theatrical traditions to keep the audience laughing; after all this is a family show and any jibes made towards the whitefellas are pretty fleeting and less about the content of the story, more about the situation we are all in.
Here we all are in the theatre and an Indigenous actor gets a safe laugh asking if we 'like' his 'white' accent when he plays a white role. It is easy to laugh at that. Not so easy to laugh at the details of Namatjira's life, and many will say that wouldn't make a good night out anyway – harsh realities are probably more acceptable on film in this day and age.
The performers' grandest theatrical gestures, whip cracking and singing were beautiful; while overall it was lacking some honest moments of intimacy with lasting emotional resonance, it was a successful feel-good show raising the flag of a once great artist.
The ample use of non-Indigenous music draws the production into traditions of a higher art form than 'community' or 'Indigenous' theatre and broadens its general appeal.
The short film screening, the live portrait painted on stage, the wood-wind instrumentals, these elements are not directly linked to Namatjira the man, they're pretty tenuous links that relate more to the changed world since his time, playing to a mainstream audience of the 21st century perhaps to keep their intellectual attention in a happy place and to distract from the miserable hand the white invaders dealt their first Indigenous artist back in the last century.
Namatjira wasn't quite a great night out but it was very good. I was left feeling a little disappointed on the one hand that the operatic tragedy of his life had not left a lasting impression on me, while on the other, the level of intimacy attempted didn't quite work in such a large theatre.
The production is really suited to a venue the size and shape of Sydney's Belvoir Street where it originated, more so than Adelaide's Her Majesty's Theatre; if it returned to Adelaide it would be better in The Space, although there'd be less money to be made in that venue.
Big hART presents
Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre
Dates: 4 – 12 May, 2012
Tickets: $55 – $20
Bookings: BASS on 131 246 | www.bass.net.au