• 13 May 2010 /  Uncategorized

    all photos by brett monaghan

    Last night a small tribe of Sydneysiders gathered in one of those ever-growing number of Marrickville warehouse-assembly rooms to take in a screening of the doco Nothing Rhymes With Ngapartji. Those following this site will know it had a big and very well received premiere out in Alice Springs a month or so back, and that you will all get to see it on ABC TV later in the year. This was for those of us who would have gone to the Alice screening if we had been able.

    As always the goodwill and camaraderie generated from this project flavoured the air as about 30 of us knocked back a few drinks and vegan only tucker (stipulation of the venue), then took to seats couches and swags on the floor to enjoy the movie. I will speak for myself only: I think it is a wonderful film and a remarkable achievement. Why? Because the stage production on which the film is based is very multi-layered (see my original review at australianstage.com), then there was the challenge facing the filmmakers (director Suzie Bates and her team) to capture the adventure of taking this production out to the tiny town of Ernabella – several hundred kilometres south-west of Alice Springs – just over the boarder into South Australia. Thus adding several more layers of fascinating storytelling.

    Apart from the raw beauty of the footage, and the innate drama, it is the organisation of he complex material into a grippingly well-told story that most impresses. The partnership between director Suzy Bates and editor Vanessa Milton was clearly productive. This is one of those films where so much fabulous stuff would have had to be cut away, with rigorous discipline the foundation stone of any final product that made both a visual impact on viewers – and made sense.

    In the stage production we have the story of the 1950s atomic bomb testing at Maralinga (SA) and how this affected whole communities of Aboriginals, killing some immediately, others dying slowly over time with radiation poisoning, and decimating communities as they were forced to flee hundreds of square kilometres of contaminated homelands. A diaspora of desperation and grief that took individuals and groups in directions mostly to the north and the west. Some ended up at the Ernabella mission to the north: so essentially the project being documented was taking the play back to many of the people who ‘own’ this story. There was an open challenge for any of us to come with a title for the film: and while it’s too late now, my suggestion – after seeing the film last night – is Ngapartji Ngapartji: Back to Country. I think that title or something like it would better focus audiences attention on the film’s central theme.

    Others fleeing the ‘sticky poison clouds fled into Western Australia including the grandparents of Trevor Jamieson, star (if you will) of both the play and the film. We follow what happened to Maralinga’s dispossessed through the trials of Trevor’s grandparents, then their children (including Trevor’s father) and then his children, including Trevor’s troubled brother Jangala. The tale as it is unfolds demonstrates the damage done to Aboriginal people inter-generationally as a consequence of their dislocation from traditional homelands. But unlike other versions of this now familiar narrative, Ngapartji Ngapartji – as a work of art – embodies in itself a journey towards ‘healing’.

    Pushing past the grief and tragedy into – well wait and see the film. But this is one of its strong points: the impact the show has on members of the Ernabella community. Among the revelations to those of us who witnessed the film-making are the on-screen interviews with local elders – senior women who not only experienced the bombs as children but perform on stage as part of the choir or storytellers in their own language – Pitjantjatjara. And senior law men to whom Trevor must defer on several matters for advice – but one in particular.

    A mere three weeks before preparations swing into action in Ernabella with the arrival of a pantechnicon of gear and an advance team of production techies, Trevor’s father dies. Traditionally, the names of the dead are never to mentioned and viewing any images of the deceased is forbidden. Yet not only does Trevor normally talk about his father’s life in the stage production, there is also film footage of Trevor asking his father how his grandmother died. As we discover – murdered in a rage by his grandfather, her husband (the circumstances are as culturally fascinating as they are tragic. So, layered on top of the many stories already captured in the play is this a new one (among others): an immensely significant cultural debate about whether Trevor and the production team need to drop all references in the play to Trevor’s father. As tradition would hitherto require.

    The film also captures the response of the Ernabella community from the time the production team arrives, through the building of the set, to  participation of locals in rehearsals, all the way through to recording the (two only) performances under starry skies.I guess what I am trying to suggest here is that structuring a film that can make sense of so many parallel narratives in the ‘less-then-an-hour’ required for television was an enormous challenge – on a par with the demands made on the crew who undertook the filming itself.

    In my view, the film is very well put together, makes a lot of sense and is hugely powerful. But I have the benefit of much prior knowledge. Few one-hour documentaries attempt to take on so much. Whether unprepared viewers are able to follow the many journeys the film pursues is a question yet to be answered. That the documentary was not accepted for this year’s Sydney Film Festival raises concerns. Does the film not quite make the grade – or where the assessors looking for a ‘western format’ that could never have done the job. One only has to think of Ten Canoes

    What I would like to say about is that Big hART is a creative company that specialises in deeply layered stories anyway, often built over years, and this film fits into that mold. Those of us who look at dot paintings from Central Desert and only see pretty patterns are usually well aware that, to better-informed eyes, these pictures are also ‘full of story’. Mostly story. One part of the film that sets it apart for Whitefellas from the play is a scene  where one of the senior women tells us a story in Pitjantjatjara. We can tell it is important – but what is she saying? In the film this speech is serviced with sub-titles: and what this woman has to say about the atom bomb testing and its impact over the following 60 years on her people is like listening to a survivor of the Holocaust giving evidence at the Nuremberg trials.

    That the entire film is also interlaced with scenes of Ernabella’s children forever at play, tumbling rivers of innocence and natural-born joy, serve as silent visual testimony to another narrative yet to be played out in full.

    one of my favourite photos from the trip


  • 17 Apr 2010 /  News

    Big hART’s other documentary film project about taking the award-winning stage production of Ngapartji Ngapartji to outback Ernabella has just had its first screening – in Alice Springs. It’s called Nothing Rhymes With Ngapartji (not counting ‘apogee’… lol…which is a good match if there is going to be one!) I am hoping to get some stills from the film and/or pix from the screening – in the mean time I have dug up just a few pix taken during the shoot.

    For those of you new to this site – it’s where jameswaites.com started. When no print media were interested in a story about taking this amazing stage production ‘back to Country’, I thought, oh well, the time has come to make the move. I mean from print to online. Meanwhile my good friend photographer Brett Monaghan was sick of Milan and fashion after ten years,  so I suggested he come with me. Not long after, he arrived in Sydney, crashed at my place overnight, and the next day we were on a plane to Alice Springs. The day after that we helped pack up the convey vehicles and heed off on the 400-kilometre journey to Ernabella, where a stage was to be built on a dry creek bed in the heart of town in advance of two performances.

    Photographer: Brett Monaghan

    Photographer: Brett Monaghan

    It was one of life’s great experiences. For more on that trip go to the category on this site called Ngapartji Ngapartji. Better still go to Brett’s website – brettmonaghan.com/bighart – and look for the relevant folders where you will see some of the thousands photos he took in the month we were away. We are actually hoping to self-publish a book based on these images with a few scant words from me – will let you know how that goes.

    Meanwhile here are some words from the film’s website:

    Nothing Rhymes with Ngapartji, follows the journey of acclaimed Pitjantjatjara actor, Trevor Jamieson, as he returns to his traditional country to perform his hit theatre show – Ngapartji Ngapartji – to an all-Indigenous audience, in the remote Australian aboriginal community of Ernabella, South Australia.

    Film director: Suzy Bates

    “Trevor has struggled to hold onto language and culture while living away from his traditional country. Ngapartji Ngapartji is a live theatre performance in two languages. But usually the audience is fluent in English not Pitjantjatjara. 2500km from the recent 5 weeks sell-out Sydney Festival season, against the magnificent backdrop of Australia’s central desert Trevor is preparing to face his toughest audience yet.

    Trevor going over his lines

    “The film follows the Ngapartji Ngapartji team’s journey to Ernabella and performance of their acclaimed show in situ. It is terrible timing for Trevor; whose father, a central character in the stage show, passed away only weeks before. Not only does Trevor have to confront his grief in order to deliver the performance, in doing so he has to grapple with the decision to risk breaking traditional law by saying his father’s name, acting the part of him, and showing footage of him as part of the show. Is Trevor going to get a knock on the head?

    Camera: Davo Seres & helpers

    “Trevor’s family story is one of struggle & survival. Beginning in the 1950′s Trevor’s grandfather witnessed British atomic testing spread sickness throughout his land; the performance follows three generations of an Aboriginal family as they grapple with becoming refugees in their own country.

    Trevor during performance: the grieving

    “Elders in Ernabella have their own memories of the Maralinga bombs, and Trevor knows that the Ngapartji Ngapartji show will be a potent reminder of what people have not talked about for a long time. As excitement builds amongst the company and the community about performing for an indigenous audience in Ernabella, so too the trepidation builds in Trevor, as he fears the consequences of performing a story so close to his own heart.

    “Will Trevor’s resolve be his own undoing? We find out…”



  • 29 Aug 2009 /  Articles

    It’s 1st birthday party time for jameswaites.com  !!!!


    Partying @ my place this weekend

    We debuted 2 September 2009. I have since put up around 150 posts – from snail mail to air express, ranging in import from the silly and deeply shallow to the culture shifting and gloriously profound (yeah right). The site got started because I couldn’t get feature stories up in the print media any more. Two good ones got turned down almost back to back this time last year: Indeed, as is their discourteous way these days, most editors did not even bother to rsvp with even the simplest ‘no thanks’. One was a chance to cover the annual sex workers (Scarlet Alliance) conference, which was being held in Kalgoorlie last year. The other was the making of a documentary film based on Big hART’s Ngapartji Ngapartji project, on location in a town called Ernabella, 500ks south-west of Alice Springs. I so wanted to go on that trip I ended up inventing my own publishing outlet – jameswaites.com. The rest is hysterical.

    Read the rest of this entry »

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  • 24 Oct 2008 /  Random

    Hey there,

    Brett Monaghan has been able to organise his photos from the Ernabella trip into neat folders which can now be found by going directly to his website – and thus bypassing my words. No doubt you have all been quite irritated, thus far, by the fact that I was embedding links to his pixs so deeply into my blurbs that you had to read every goddam sentence to get to the hot pix.

    Jane and Beth by the Fire

    Jane and Beth by the Fire

    Well no longer. All the pix previously posted are up in neat folders on one site. And Brett has included one whole new folder of pix (ernabella-4) including ones from the day the big dust storm came through. We still have hundreds and hundreds of pix to go through – including ones from the actual performances of the show. Yes, there are more in the pipeline.


    Brett has gone to Queensland to photograph a famly wedding. And I am off to a wedding also on Sunday. The exotic song-bird Ms Christa Hughes is marrying hot actor Mr Sean Barker.  I will take a hankie in case I cry.


    go to: www.brettmonaghan.com/bighart


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  • 15 Oct 2008 /  Articles

    My life has changed since Germaine Greer declared I was Aboriginal. Not necessarily coz she was right – though she always is! But because this was around the same time I was heading off to Ernabella – and all the good that has come to from that ‘sojourn on another planet’.

    The good from that trip is multi-faceted, but one of the main elements was the opportunity to allow the illness of ‘anxiety’, with which I suffer, to diminish from a big black hole in my heart to a much smaller black smear. Here I am putting my life in my readers’ hands, but – oh well – what are blogs for if not to blog all over. Only a few of you know that I fell off a cliff when I was in my twenties and drifted into a coma while on the operating theatre from which I did not emerge for, I think, something like twelve days. I had many operations, four on my left hip, including two in London – where I limped around for a year with an infection and a bandage from knee to groin for more than a year. It was a tough way to start my global career as a something. From which I returned unsuccessful and instead became a critic.

    Approximately 27 fractures to live with this day, mostly down my left side, so I get a bit of arthritis these days – oh and the blood I received in transfusion was infected with a virus I am still obliged to manage daily. But the only real price I paid for that accident was ‘nominal aphasia’ (aka ‘forgetting names’); and what has been diagnosed as ‘panic disorder’, perhaps better known as ‘shell-shock’. This might help explain to those who think they know me, why sometimes I have been known to ‘over-react’ to challenging or unpleasant situations I have sometimes found myself in.

    It got to a point in my 40s where this behavioural flaw seriously started to have a negative impact on my life at all levels, personal and professional – and I had to go seek help. The highlight of which was being accidentally locked in the toilet of my psychiatrist’s flash new premises, magazines being pushed under the door, while we had to wait a couple of hours for the builder to turn up and get me out.

    I was greatly comforted in that moment by two factors. One was the idea that I was in the middle of the ultimate Woody Allen joke; and the other was a cartoon hand-drawn on the toilet mirror by Leunig – which I really can’t explain here without tiring you out, but which was suitably philosophical to help me through the moment.

    It has taken a lot of hard work for me to feel confident that I could return to crowded buses or bars, though a boss only has to shout at me once for me to get up and exit a new job. It speaks to my love of the form, I guess, (how safe I feel) that I don’t at all mind a crowded theatre foyer.

    But I did let myself down on the drive from Alice Springs to Ernabella when, at a rare petrol station stop, a woman called me to wind my window down so she could pour abuse on me with great enthusiasm for an alleged driving  incident some several hundred kilometres earlier, when – as I tried to explain to her – I was not actually driving the car. In normal circumstances these days I would have done whatever I could to defuse the situation of this hard bush bitch barking obscenities at me with an apology and a soft smiling heart; but instead I fell into the old trap of answering back. All this is very small beer – except for the fact that, while I was chewing angrily on my ‘burger with lot’ (a very good one actually) from the garage diner, Big hART’s Scott Rankin came up and pressed his thumbs gently into my shoulder blades. In front of the rest of the somewhat-alarmed touring squad. It was a gesture of strategic healing and noteable compassion from, in effect, a stranger. And while this piece of writing is not about Scott Rankin, or the recent trip away, it was an action that – I believe now – goes to the heart of his work.

    What I do want to note however was the ‘Whiteness’ of the woman’s attack on me. It is not how I grew up. Something else not many of you would know: but I was born in 1955 in a tiny colonial hospital on the island of Sohano, which sits in the strait between Buka and Bougainville; islands themselves that for thousands of years belonged culturally to what we now identify as the Solomons, but were hived off at the stroke of  a pen and carelessly handed to the colonial powers (first German, then British, then Australian) holding sway over what we like to call New Guinea. Later down the time-line, of course, trouble has come from that.

    Even though my parents were not a great match for marriage, and trouble unfolded in later years; growing up on those islands, and other outposts around New Guinea and Papua (Saidor, Madang, Kerema, Daru, less so Port Moresby in the later years) was characterized by a peacefulness – an absence of ‘anxiety’ – that I have missed since moving to Sydney for boarding school in 1967. ‘Alienation’ is not given its due as one of the structural posts of late capitalism’s consumerist society. “We grieve therefore we shop.” “We grieve therefore we shoplift.” “We grieve therefore we yell at that other customer in the queue.” We grieve therefore we stab the late-night migrant worker before making off with a packet of cigarettes.”

    It was not until I read Patrick White’s Riders In the Chariot and Tree of Man (syllabus texts) in my late teenage years that I found some help in understanding the weird underpinning of gratuitous cruelty that appears to characterize the Australian culture. However ‘low tech’ they might have been, the towns had grown up in across PNG seemed infinitely more civilized.

    I am not talking about some kind of hifaluting colonial pomposity, of the sort indulged in by the British in India. Life in PNG in those post-WWII years was ‘survival’ based, and even if almost all the European households had ‘staff’, there was a great camaraderie and mutual respect between colonizer and colonized – by and large. Mum would babysit the housegirl’s kids if need be. And kids from the nearby village would be rounded up to flesh out attendance at our birthday parties – where such luxuries as lamingtons, meringues and fairy bread appeared as nutritionally mad, if delicious, to the locals, as they actually are.mMy mother used to say she knew we would always be safe on Bougainville, all three of us little children, however far we wandered. That PNG is no longer such a safe place is an indictment of Australia’s mismanagement of it’s obligations as a colonial power: but that is a story for another time.

    It was profoundly tragic to revisit the place of my birth in 1988 – in the midst of a civil war. Bougainville  PNG. All over a goddam copper mine. I found the tiny hospital I was born in abandoned by staff and taken over by a colony abandoned lepers. It was a confrontation as shocking as it was succinct. I had come to find a lost part of myself: and I did so in the form of one young man who would appear from behind trees and bushes, shouting mad things at me with great enthusiasm as he limped along the track behind me – in the belief I was his long lost brother. Jimi! Jimi! Jimi! Well perhaps I was!

    This dislocation in my sense of self is something I have had to learn to live with. And, apart from the occasional fall from good grace, I have done so. More or less. But it does not take away the sadness; nor does it diminish the suspicion in my eye as I gaze across what is brightly described as Western Culture.

    So you can see why my journey to Ernabella with the Ngapartji Ngapartji mob was such a positive experience for me. In the first instance, there is the Big hART working model, which requires all participants to put their egos in their pockets and work as one. As someone who must still be very careful about how much time I spend in the company of large groups, living close to the ground – 24/7 – in so-called ‘primitive conditions’ – with between twenty and forty people was a great test of my susceptibility to ‘illness’. And for 99.99% of the time, the experience was incredibly positive. I fact I have emerged from the adventure with a much stronger and more secure sense of worth and self. And a more secure sense of calm.

    More significant was the experience of being Ernabella itself, which is so like the towns I grew up in. If dryer. Or quite likely similar to what most of these towns would be like if I visited them today. So many memories came flooding back of living in a ‘bi-cultural’ world. And how comfortable I felt with that. I remembered writing in my diary from Rabaul in 1988: “I feel like a frog put back in his pond”; and there was a touch of the same sensation being in Ernabella too. Though I am not making light of the profound cultural differences between indigenous PNG cultures and those of central Australia.

    Dear me: all the above was intended to be no more than of pre-amble to the ‘subject of the day’ – subjet du jour! Which is meant to be what I made of the Deadly Awards in particular but, in the same week, two other trips to the Sydney Opera House. And another tonight to see/hear Pattie Smith. But, in fact, as the week has unfolded, all these ‘live’ experiences survive in the shadow now of the most significant cultural event since my return. That being the opening two episodes of SBS’s bone-shaking series, The First Australians.

    Are you watching it!

    Since few of us these days have very long attention spans, and there are no pretty pictures to go with this post (sorry kids) I am going to stop here. Leave you hanging, as it were; and I will pick up where I am leaving off tomorrow.

    PS: for those of you who love my site exclusively for Brett’s pictures, I assure you, more are on the way. He had to do a wedding on the weekend (yep you know the movie – The Wedding Photographer). But he is back processing images from Outback-DownUnder as you read this

    ….if you got this far (lol).

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  • 14 Oct 2008 /  Uncategorized

    Once In Lifetime!


  • 13 Oct 2008 /  News, Videos

    Hey there!

    Back in Sydney town and I have visited my own Dreaming Site, the Sydney Opera House, three times in a week. This was for a Palestinian-Israeli one-man show on its way to the Melbourne Festival called In Spitting Distance; and a couple of night’s back, also on its way to Melbourne, was the Phillip Glass-Leonard Cohen gig The Book of Longing. More of these in my next post which I will work on over next couple of days. Along with a report from The 2008 Deadly’s - the national Indigenous sports, arts and culture awards – held on Thursday 9th at the SOH Concert Hall, where our Ngapartji Ngapartji senior men, Trevor Jamieson and Scott Rankin, took out a major award.

    Outstanding Achievement in Film, TV or Theatre
    Trevor Jamieson & Scott Rankin, Ngapartji Ngapartji

    Something to look at while I burrow away at my keyboard for the next couple of days, here are two videos of the Chooky Dancers from Elcho Island, off the coast from Darwin. The Chooky’s lost to Stephen Page and Bangarra in the  Deadly category for Best Dancing (something like that). But I kinda felt disappointed that these creative kids did not walk off with the gong. Taking nothing away from Page and Bangarra, but they are already successful and well known. The Chooky Dancers are a phenomenon. Since a snippet of video went up on U Tube for fun just over a year ago, it has had over one million hits word-wide and the video itself remains a huge hit in tavernas and cafes across Greece.

    Is This Kid The New Nijinsky?

    Is This Kid The New Nijinsky?

    The original video was posted by a then 34-year-old ‘Tammy’ who comes under the U Tube name of Chineyginey (that’s all I know about her at this point). But if you go to the more info tab on the first video you will find out more about the video maker, his connections to the troupe and the troupe’s own origins. Here are two different camera angles. I’m not even sure if they are from the same performance, though the basketball-court setting appears the same. Both offer an insight into something quite amazing, in my view. One is a long shot, the other camera is closer up.

    I’m sure you’ll notice the lead dancer in action (photo above) – can he move or what?

    Totally Deadly!

    Here is a second view which you might like to look at using your full-screen mode as the lighting is very low and I put it up mainly because it offers a few fantastic details.

    I’ll be back soon with a fuller report on last week’s activities. A certain urgency as I need to clear my mind for Barrie Kosky’s The Women of Troy on Friday night!

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  • 12 Oct 2008 /  Random

    I forgot to put up this paparazzo shot of the After Party – Opening Night of Ngapartji Ngapartji at Ernabella. Everyone who was someone was there!!

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  • 09 Oct 2008 /  Uncategorized

    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.



  • 01 Oct 2008 /  Uncategorized

    I took a trip down to the Araluen Arts Centre, in Alice Springs, today where the Ngapartji Ngapartji company is preparing for their three-day season starting tomorrow night. Such are the advances in techologies, the bump in (putting up the set) took half a day; not the seven days of back-breaking labour and infinite patience, ingenuity and lateral thinking it took in Ernabella. We have returned to rich black dirt, as used in the Belvoir Street season in January this year – where I first saw the show.

    Ngapartji Ngapartji at Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney - January 2008

    I’m mentioning this because, before I write about the performances in Ernabella and Alice Springs, you might want to read my initial response to the show. Here is a link to my review which I wrote for the lovely folks at the national theatre website Australian Stage. Now might be a good time to thank them for the year-and-a-half of opportunities they gave me before I decided to set out on my own.