Bloggist as Critic
Most of you dipping into this site of late will have absorbed the notion that I spend most of my life sitting around while others do the work. This is especially true when I don my evening ‘critic’s attire’ – the bat-wing cape and the Nosferatu fangs. And take to a seat on the aisle. As legend puts it correctly, our type tends to avoid the light of day as we search high and low for the blood of the particularly talented on which our centuries of damned and lonely survival depends. Not all fully understand the predicament of the Drama Critic as Dracula. It is a secret kept close to the chest of the very rarest theatre artists, often writer/director combinations, who themselves suckle on the services of the best in the specialist arts that are brought together to create theatre: designers, technicians and, most precious of all, actors. They know that a truly superb work of theatre emits a special ray which tames the thousand-year-old rage that churns through the critic’s ‘core organ’ where normal humans have a heart.
The x-ray like beam has an exceedingly rare purity to it. It can cause King Kong, one of my relatives in the noir mythic panoply, to gently put down Fay Wray. As the great horror film directors, including F. Murneau and James Whale (both gay – lol), knew too well – it is possible to make a monster cry. To disarm him: for a few moments, at least, for him to forget his grief as he stumbles upon a rare moment of compassion amidst the human race. Enough of the tricky conceit…
It is my observation, having encountered stage works on average three times a week for the past 25 years, that only a very few works for the theatre leave a permanent mark on the body. It is what I call the ‘x-ray effect’ or ‘tattoo’. Quite a few works leave some kind of imprint; but most ultimately fade. Some totally disappear. Evidence of the least articulate of works has sometimes evaporated by the next morning.
This is why, in my process as a jobbing critic, I almost never take notes. So long as I don’t drink too much at the after party, if I wake up the next morning with no recall of what I saw the night before I dare to presume the work has damned itself to oblivion. Sadly it embodied no inner light.
At the other end of the spectrum is the imprint on the body that stays forever. From documentation survives the reputation of Helene Weigel’s ‘silent scream’ from the 1949 Berlin production of Mother Courage, captured in the screen version, and recreated for the London presentation of the production also (both starring Weigel).
The most powerful x-ray ever printed on my body is the turbulent arrival on stage of Judy Davis in her 1986 rendition of of the title role in Hedda Gabler. Before a word was spoken we knew this character was in deep trouble and none of us were going to leave the theatre before this profound inner turmoil had played itself out. Again the silence ‘screamed’. I have discussed this moment with others who were there that opening night and, for everyone so far, the moment is also tattooed on their souls.
So it is into this high company that my physiology has decided to remember another, more recent, iconic theatrical moment. This was the emergence of Trevor Jamieson’s brother, Jangala, into the harsh judgement of stage lighting from the ‘nowhere’ of his semi-tragic life story in the Sydney rendition of Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji, which played at Belvoir Street Theatre last January. This was not an ‘acting’ event, as were the Davis/Weigal moments cited above. This was a moment of reality embedded in the dramaturgy of Ngapartji Ngapartji – and focus on it here as a way to offer an insight into the extraordinary mind of the play’s co-creator and director, Scott Rankin.
I suggested in an earlier post that close readers of this site take a look at that review in prep for what I am about to say now.
Ngapartji Ngapartji intertwines several narrative, but all around the core story of leading actor Trevor Jamieson’s family history. It is a story scarred by tragedy time and time again, and one of the ‘radiant’ factors in the work is the good grace and dignity with Trevor himself carries the burden of this pain. He tells us near the beginning of the show that he had been begun on this project with a simple idea to make a film about his brother, Jangala. A young man who has found it much more difficult to find a balance between the warring inner worlds of traditional life and that offered by European society than perhaps Trevor has.
As the action unfolds, Jangala’s predicament is placed within the swirling context of Aboriginal dislocation from traditional lands and indeed dispossession. We get to follow a time-line, as it were, that takes us back to the forced removal of people’s from the Maralinga lands for the purpose of British atomic bomb testing, tracing the course of events effecting the lives of Trevor and Jangala’s grandparents,parents, and then on to themselves.
It is made quite clear in all renditions of the production so far, which has previously played Perth, Melbourne and Sydney Festivals, that Jangala has had trouble with the law. European law. I don’t think it is too invasive to say here that his appearances in the production, in Perth and Sydney, went hand in hand with happier phases of his life. In Perth he was said to be shy, new to the outside world, as it were. In Sydney, there was a lovely confidence he sometimes exuded off-stage which led to hope – in himself, too, I guess – that the worst might be behind him.
I am backgrounding here the most powerful moment in the Sydney production. A flashlight explosion of drama in essence as Jangala rose out of the earth, painted in white, to Trevor’s words: ‘And this is my brother.” We had heard so much about him, and it was distressing. But talk is ultimately cheap, especially in the theatre. And here was Jangala standing before us – tall and proud. He was alive.
In that moment rested not only the fact that, at this point in time – on stage at least – Jangala was a ‘free man’. Within the domain of the drama unfolding (if more hesitantly on the streets of Sydney) Jangala was, right here, in command of his life. Jangala’s surprise emergence, out of the narrative into the harsh light of the stage, nailed all the talk so far to his body. There he stood: the flawed Christ in all of us.
I could write thousands of words deconstructing particular images out of which the imaginative empire of Ngapartji Ngapartji is built. For example thec images of bones, stacked and crushed to powder, which feature throughout the production. And I will produce more comment over the weeks ahead. It is a work of infinite grace and awesome spiritual power. Funny and sad. And the work itself is as courageous as the members of the Jamieson family who have allowed their story to be scutinised and shaped into a drama – so that all of us may take something away to enrich our own lives. It is an enormous gift from a family that has suffered greatly and many times over these past four generations.
The point I am leading to, however, is this – and it goes to the core of director Scott Rankin’s unique artistic vision. However enthralling the Jangala moment was in Sydney, it was not available for use in the Ernabella season. For whatever reason, Jangala could not be there for the ‘home-town’ rendition of the production. Not exactly the ‘home-town’ of the Jamieson family. But, in many ways, the home-town of the show, for most of the Elder women who have featured in its various manifestations are from here. And this was one of the reasons why it was decided to present the ‘bush’ version of the show in Ernabella. In the spirit of ‘exchange’ expressed in the words ‘Ngapartji Ngapartji’, Big hART wanted to give the people of the town and its contributing artists something back.
No other actor of her generation could have replaced the ‘essence’ of Judy Davis in her version of Hedda’s entrance; and while Helene Weigel’s ‘silent scream’ has been re-iterated in other renditions, (no longer an ‘original moment’) never to the same effect. But the point here is that both Davis and Weigel were playing ‘characters’, way beyond themselves as real people. And even if their versions of Hedda and Mother Courage are admired, even historic, many other actresses have done very well in those roles.
Jangala, however, is irreplaceable. Such are the creative ground rules on which Ngapartj Ngapartji is built: if this young man is not available to represent himself, no other human on the planet can credibly stand in for him. This is not a crisis, the show has worked without him before and it did again in Ernabella. But clearly were Trevor – who carries 80 percent of the show on hus back – not available for a performance, or a season, there would be no show. There is no gap between Trevor Jamieson ‘actor’ and Trevor Jamieson ‘character’ in the play. Nor for Jangala. Yet swirling around this documentary core is a fictive universe populated by characters ‘acted out’ by other members of the ensemble, most noteably Lex Marinos, in a variety of character roles. The Japanese actresses Tomico (in Ernabella) and Umi (in Sydney and Alice), in turn, represent a generic victim of the Hiroshima bombings. Then there is the chorus of Elder women; and other personages on stage, each standing somewhere along the line between ‘character’ and ‘self’. In these more recent versions of the show out in the Centre, who were Kalem and Kiescha? Trevor’s kids – or representatives of an entire next generation? Probably both I guess.
The sophistication with which Rankin layers the storytelling process – without ever bringing notice to the various states of ‘dramatic being’ embodied by the members of the cast – is, to my mind, one of the deeply creative components of the show. And it means professional actors of skill can mix it with ‘ordinary people’, as it were, without any sense of oddness arising from the mix. Well just say other people on stage who bring to the work different performative traditions, highly geared or otherwise.
It goes Rankin’s long history of working with all sorts of ‘real life folk’, and more of this too another time I hope, that he – like no one else I have ever encountered – is able create this mix on stage – and for it to work. Let’s be frank here: Peter Brook might also be famous for taking his shows out to somewhere in the dirt. But the bill comes in twenty or thirty times higher than this trip of Ngapartji Ngapartji to Ernabella; and he is only able to work with ‘the finest and most skillful actors in the world’.
So deft and sensitive is ‘the hand that rocks the cradle’ here, you would be forgiven for not realizing there was even a director involved. But don’t be fooled, if not for years in my seat in the stalls, two weeks watching this version of Ngapartji Ngapartji come together proves beyond doubt that Rankin is one of the most astute and aesthetically refined directors currently working in this country. I am tempted to go further.
Can I also make the observation that Ngapartji Ngapartji is a work that is never finished. Even if, one day, it will come to an end. When not ‘on stage’ somewhere, the show sleeps. Like one of the great Aboriginal Dreamings, it lies in the soil and then rises up in a different manifestation each time it is required to do so to perform.
Trevor with Kin
Present day life in the Jamieson family continues on: the ups and downs. So not only was director Scott Rankin unable, in Ernabella, to lay down one of his theatrical aces in the absence of Trevor’s brother; he had also to deal with the tragic news that Trevor’s father, A. Jamieson, had passed away only four weeks earlier. A. Jamieson would very likely to have been in Ernabella to see the show, had he not passed away; and he already featured in some of the filmed sequences. So the Ernabella version of the show was re-geared around this new family reality. This involved careful negotiations with the family for, as most of us know, the mentioning of the names of recently deceased or the presentation of their image in public is a sensitive matter. Having pretty well given over their entire family history to the show, it as a further sign if trust and goodwill that the family agreed to not only allow the mention of A. Jamieson’s name and footage of his image not to be cut; in doing so, they allowed Rankin to push new aspects of the family story forward.
The Sorrow The Sorrow
Trevor was joined by his mother Gail, and his children Kalem and Kiescha, in Ernabella. It was torturous for Gail to sit through the show – but she did. To talk with her around the campfire at nights was to encounter a truly extraordinary woman.
Meanwhile, the kids were given a chance to join the show. By the time it reached its season in Alice Springs, their presence in the family narrative had been expanded and pushed to the fore. There was a new focus on the next generation coming through; and the message of hope for better times now rested – convincingly – in their presence on stage. In this work you see the artistic mind of Scott Rankin, whilst never straying from a highly aesthetic environment, always on the look-out for beauty in the form of personal growth and shared healing.
I think that’s enough for one posting. Over the next few weeks, I promise to write more on the experience of travelling with the Ngapartji Ngapartji mob to Ernabella and on to Alice Springs. I will report further on both the day-to-day adventures, and probably a few more pieces like this one, where I try to capture what makes this show one of the most extraordinary I have ever encountered. I took to calling this theatrical invention, around the campfire, ‘Mahabharata on a Dollar a Day’: and that is not far from the truth.
Despite the show’s big city successes (a standing ovation at every performance so far) I am not convinced that all who count, including the broader critical commentariat, and those with their hands on the purse strings, have fully taken on board just how significant – as a work of stage art – Ngapartji Ngapartji is. If the Jangala moment in Sydney made a permanent mark on me, so did the entire show in a broader sense. Which Pied Piper-ed me all the way to Ernabella. I remain enchanted
That whole two weeks, I have no doubt, will stay with me forever. There was so much good in the experience at so many levels. The next time I write I will look to the relationship between the show and Ernabella, the town.