Theatre – Namatjira

By Tess Jaeger | 26 Sep 11

Written and directed by Scott Rankin, Namatjira is the story of the famous Aboriginal Australian artist Albert Namatjira (1902–1959), whose life and work is celebrated around the world. The play was created with Albert’s family and is part of the Namatjira Project, run by the award-winning arts and social change company Big hART.

During the 2010 season, in its first year of performances at Sydney’s Belvoir Street Theatre, Namatjira drew sell-out crowds, spurring a national tour in 2011. To kick off the new season, the cast travelled overseas to the International Community Arts Festival (ICAF) in Rotterdam, Holland. The play has enjoyed rave reviews throughout its two years in production. The performance held at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre on Friday 26 August this year emphatically delivered the result that its previous press had promised.

Namatjira bears witness to the memory and legacy of an inimitable cultural icon, a dedicated artist and a great friend and family member. The script is brave and unreserved in its honesty. Its faithfulness to history and to Albert Namatjira’s life in no way diminishes its artistic scope and willingness to go beyond the confines of conventional theatre. The cast – particularly lead actor Trevor Jamieson, who channels Albert throughout the performance – engages directly with the audience periodically, making the play a pleasure to be part of.

The script is brave and unreserved in its honesty.

At the beginning of the first scene, Trevor introduces the cast, which includes members of the Namatjira family, some of whom are seen drawing a large, black-and-white landscape in chalk across the back and side of the stage throughout the performance. We learn that Albert’s name was intended to be Elea, Carpet Snake Dreaming; that his father’s name was Namatjirritja; and that the name he would come to be known by was an imposition of the German mission he was raised on.

Albert says, “my name is Elea, or Taranga, but I’m Albert because … I don’t know why. He’s [my father] called Jonathan Namatjira, except that isn’t it, so I’ll use the name that isn’t his for the name that isn’t mine”.

The denial of traditional names and the cultural obscurity that Albert and his family are relegated to as a result is a familiar hallmark of white Australia’s early attempts to usurp Aboriginal cultures. That this colonial drive gave birth to what we now know to be normative Australian society is an uncomfortable but unavoidable fact.

The play is self-conscious enough to poke fun at the modern white Australian sense of collective guilt for injustices perpetrated against the Aboriginal people – especially when carried down to the most bizarre logical conclusions.

The play is self-conscious enough to poke fun at the modern white Australian sense of collective guilt …

Trevor jokes that newly pregnant (non-Aboriginal) couples considering an Aboriginal name for their child might be reluctant: “But, do you think we have to ask permission? Do we need a ‘Welcome to Name’? Is there such a thing as an indigenous-naming-protocol consultant we can hire?”

The dialogue is witty, telling and poignant. The actors transition seamlessly between their multiple roles. Derik Lynch offers outrageous performances as Lady Huntingfield and Queen Elizabeth II, among others.

Moments of intervening hilarity make the play’s stark realities easier to swallow. Ultimately, however, Namatjira is an elegy and a story of remembrance. It reveals personal and collective wounds sewn into Australia’s contemporary history.

Namatjira is to be performed at the Northern Rivers Performing Arts Group (NORPA) in Lismore, New South Wales on Friday 30 September and Saturday 1 October. Join the Friends of the Namatjira Project in support. Listen to Right Now Radio’s interview with Namatjira actor Derik Lynch and Creative Producer Sophia Marinos.