Performing Arts

Namatjira

Presented by Big hART, created with the Namatjira family
Reviewed Wednesday 9th May 2012

Albert Namatjira (28 July 1902 – 8 August 1959), born Elea Namatjira, is a name familiar to a great many Australians, and to just about everybody with a serious interest in art and a knowledge of art history, but how much we really know about the man and his life is, for most people, little or nothing, other than the fact that he inspiring the Hermannsburg School of Aboriginal Art. This marvellous production remedies that in an unforgettable performance, drawing on one of those extremely important parts of Aboriginal culture; storytelling. This is where Trevor Jamieson comes in, both as a superb storyteller and as an actor/singer, performing in the role of Albert, and in numerous other roles. Jamieson gives an absolutely magnificent performance, bringing Albert into sharp focus and completely engaging the audience.

Derik Lynch joins him from time to time playing many more characters, often hilarious high camp renditions of the women in Albert’s life, from his mother and his wife, to the Queen, as well as very demanding relatives after Albert started earning good money from the sale of his works. Lynch also joins with Jamieson singing in two part harmony on some of those beautiful Lutheran hymns, as well as a couple of secular numbers.

Although the piece was written and directed by Scott Rankin, members of the Namatjira family had a great deal to do with creating this story, and Rankin ensured that they were kept informed and given a final say at all stages in this collaboration in order to preserve authenticity and accuracy.

A Western Arrente man of the MacDonnell Ranges, Albert was born at Hermannsburg Lutheran Mission, near Alice Springs, and raised there as a Christian, has name being changed to Albert at his Christening. He was also initiated and taught the traditional beliefs and ways, eventually becoming an elder. He was married to Rubina at 18 and they raised a large family.

We also hear the story of Rex Battarbee, who was badly injured in the Great War of 1914-18 and who came to paint the outback in 1936. Albert became his guide, in return for lessons in painting with watercolours. Albert quickly gained great skill and painted the desert scenes, not in the highly symbolic fashion of traditional paintings, but in a whole new rich and detailed depiction, leading the way to a contemporary form of Aboriginal art.

We learn far more, though, than a simple history of the man and artist. There is much more to this production as we learn how he was treated by white society, such as being made the first Aboriginal citizen, so that he could be forced to pay taxes on his earnings. He could then live away from the mission, but his family could not, as they were not citizens. We gain an insight into the myriad of misunderstandings by white people in their dealing with Aboriginal people, and their mistreatment of them, sometimes unintentionally, through ignorance or stupidity, and sometimes deliberately.

The first half is filled with laughter as we hear of Albert’s early years, but there is a changes in the second half as we hear of his treatment and downfall at the hands of the authorities. We discover his inner turmoil as he finds himself caught between two worlds, having to deal with his relations and traditional values, and with the white authorities, trying to balance the two extremes.

There is even more to this work, though. To one side of the stage sits Rhia Parker, with a family of recorders, switching between the different sizes to match the range of notes to the locations and emotional moments in the work, the music being composed by Genevieve Lacey. At the far side is Robert Hannaford, recreating the Archibald Prize entry of Jamieson as Albert, which gained the People’s Prize Award. To the rear, some of Albert’s grandchildren work on completing a huge landscape that forms the background.

The set was designed by Genevieve Dugard, a central piece being a multi layered construction of timber, representative of Uluru, the many layers of timber looking like the striations in rock. Nigel Levings designed the lighting, and this forms an important element, capturing the light of central Australia, depicting seasons of the year and times of day, as well as bringing the backdrop to life as the colours reflect off the white painting.

This is a stunning production in all respects, and a vitally important part of Australia’s history that every Australian should know about, told not in anger, but in a sharing and enlightening manner that anybody can relate to and learn from.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor, Glam Adelaide.

Adelaide Festival Centre – Namatjira

Venue: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Grote Street, Adelaide
Season: to Sat 12th May 2012
Duration: 2hrs 10mins (incl. interval)
Tickets: $20 to $55
Bookings: BASS 131 246 or here

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