Review: Namatjira, Rising Water ~ theatre notes

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Review: Namatjira, Rising Water

The notion of "authenticity" in art has whiskers all over it. Art, by definition, is artifice, mimicry, representation: at its most achieved, it can perhaps aspire to be authentically fake. It's entirely possible that the rest is marketing: celebrity didn't just start with Paris Hilton, after all. This generates one of the central paradoxes of art: what makes art matter, to those who encounter it as well as those who make it, is a quality that can best be called truthfulness. It's that quality, wherever it exists, which calls up the immediate sense of recognition that makes a work resonant. It goes through you, like wine through water, and changes the colour of your soul.

It is a quality at home in any form, and therefore as indefinable as it is recognisable. I've found it in work as diverse as the alternative realities of Ursula Le Guin or the astonishing visual poems of Cy Twombly; in HD's reconstructed etymologies or Beckett's astringent theatrical sculptures or, most recently, in Antonio Tarbucchi's novels. It's in Pessoa's multiple identities as much as in the passionate fakeries of Picasso's paintings. This quality might, as Viktor Shklovsky hints, come down to something as simple as the changes registered in a work of art, its movement from one state to another, mimicking similar psychic and physical states within wider human experience. Whatever it is, it is experienced as a sense of truthfulness: and in a work of art, no matter how difficult or tragic the truth might be that it communicates, that is a joyous experience.

Authenticity and truthfulness are not the same thing, although they're often confused. While truthfulness emerges from within the work itself, authenticity is a kind of certificate, an extrinsic guarantee that the work is, in some way, "genuine". In literature, for example, the author is often the guarantor, feeding a public hunger for the authentic that somehow elides the whole question of fictional truthfulness or even imagination. This is, of course, the primary reason for literary hoaxes like Helen Demidenko or Norma Khouri.

Namatjira, which opened last week at the Malthouse after a hugely successful Sydney season at Belvoir St, plays authenticity against truthfulness in deeply revealing ways. I haven't seen a lot of Big hArt's work, but it's an exemplary maker of community theatre, and one of the most interesting companies working in Australia. I first encountered Big hArt with the production Ngapartji Ngapartji, which featured in the 2006 Melbourne Festival, and later saw a moving documentary on their community work in the Northcott Housing Project in Sydney, which resulted in a Sydney Festival performance called Sticky Bricks.

Big hArt's headline festival performances are the publicly visible part of much larger long-term community engagements. Namatjira, which narrates the story of the hugely popular Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira, is one aspect of a community project in Hermannsburg, Central Australia which, as the program note explains, "is designed to leave lasting legacies beyond this touring performance". It's this profound level of engagement which gives the production its sense of authenticity: for example, this story is told with Namatjira's grandchildren, Kevin and Lenie Namatjira, on stage. They are both painters themselves, and throughout the show, with fellow painters and family members Elton, Hilary and Kevin Wirri, work on the massive chalk drawings of country, representations of Namatjira's own paintings, that constitute the background of the set.

Such careful signals of a work's authenticity can set off all sorts of warning signals. When work like this is presented in the privileged, middle class setting of a theatre, it risks being merely worthy, served up with a sense of piety that replaces vitality and, worst of all, art itself. I don't deny there's an element of piety somewhere in the work, as well as in its reception, but mostly this is exploded with comedy, the mischievous parodying of precisely those careful contemporary proprieties. Big hArt are upfront about seeking connection with their audiences, and in their oscillation between these contradictory qualities of truthfulness and authenticity, this is what they achieve. The key is the art.

Namatjira, written and directed by Scott Rankin, is a supple mediation between the artifice of theatre - highlighted in the charismatic central performance of Trevor Jamieson, the major narrator, and his offsider Derik Lynch - and the realities that the story of Namatjira reveals, signalled by the presence of his inheritors on stage. Into this are layered the mediations of painting itself. The performance unfolds in what is effectively a giant, dynamic work of visual art.

As the audience enters, Robert Hannaford is hard at work on stage, painting a portrait of Trevor Jamieson, who sits patiently as the artist darts back and forth from the canvas to his palette. This is an allusion to Sir William Dargie's famous portrait of Namatjira, but it's also, quite clearly, a portrait in its own right of the actor who is playing Namatjira. Before a word is spoken, we are already in a complex world of representation.

The performance modulates into song and music - lush choral songs from the Lutheran Mission, country and western parodies, and Genevieve Lacey's haunting recorder compositions, played live on stage. It's a contemporary take on old-fashioned story telling, and irresistibly seductive: within ten minutes, Jamieson has his audience eating out of his hand.

The story itself is a fascinating fable of colonial Australia, at once tragic and hopeful. It starts with Namatjira's parents and his childhood on a Lutheran Mission in Central Australia, his meeting with his friend and mentor Rex Battarbee, and his decision to begin painting to feed his rapidly growing family. Then there's Namatjira's extraordinary fame and wealth at a time when Aboriginal people were still considered part of Australia's flora and fauna, and his subsequent exploitation by both whites and blacks (he supported his entire 600 member community). He was the first Aboriginal given citizenship, although this honour was conferred so he could be taxed.

There are also the various rip-offs - his desperate selling of his copyright, his unsuccessful bid to buy a cattle station - which demonstrated that, for all his fame, he was still a second-class citizen. And there was his old age, culminating in the humiliation of his unjust imprisonment to hard labour after an alcohol-related crime in his community for which he was considered responsible, and which broke and killed him.

The show is careful to pay attention to complexities: Namatjira was a victim of the conflicts that resulted from his stepping between both cultures. Here the depth and complexity of personal relationships are set against the blank impersonality of institutional racism: the friendship of Rex and Albert and their mutual exchange of knowledge becomes a glimpse of a lost possibility that the company itself seeks to resurrect in its work. It's not so far from what historian James Boyce described as "indigenising", a process in which a white underclass learned from black knowledge. It created a new way of living in this country, and was often violently repressed by colonial authorities. In the utopian space of theatre, this possibility is ignited as a hope for something better.

The word is never said, but Namatjira is an enactment of reconciliation. For one thing, it's a show consciously directed towards a white audience. White attitudes to Aboriginality are gently mocked, but this is never alienating; instead, mischievously, it invites its audience into its world. The fact that the production manages to do this without a trace of false sentiment, moralising or special pleading is a tribute to how artfully its makers step through the political minefield of this kind of community-based work. It's feel-good theatre that generates an answering goodwill in its audience, a sudden generosity of possibility. And that's a rare thing to witness.

Tim Winton's first play, Rising Water, is another vision of Australia, in its own way as artfully positioned as Big hArt's. Let's make no mistake: both these productions are unashamedly directed at mainstream audiences, and in their own ways are equally manipulative (as all art, in fact, is). But Rising Water, like Winton's novels, carefully shows us the Australia we would like to imagine, or at least, would like to talk about over our dinner tables. The artfulness here, rather than disarming me, made my teeth ache.

Rising Water is set on Australia Day, on three boats moored at a Perth marina on which live three different middle-aged characters, Col (Goeff Kelso), Baxter (John Howard) and Jackie (Alison Whyte). They all have secrets which are gradually revealed through the show. They are all stuck in the backwater of their lives, wondering how to go on. They all represent various aspects of Australia, or the Australian character (the action takes place on Australia Day, with various nationalistic tics going on in the background). Variously, they provide occasions for critiquing contemporary materialism, via WA Inc or the rapacious consumerism of suburbia, or nationalism, or change.

There are some secondary characters, played by Stuart Halusz, and a mysterious boy (Louis Corbett) floating around in a boat, whom at first I thought was a Ghost of Childhood Lost or somesuch, until in the second act he turned out to be a character too, with his own monologues. And lastly there's the young British backpacker (Claire Lovering) who sparks the action of the play. Foul-mouthed and drunk, with "Pogrom" (the name of a band, apparently) tattooed on her back, she represents what has happened to the Mother Country.

It feels like a thoroughly colonial work, in a way that Namatjira - which is wholly concerned with colonisation - totally manages to avoid. Even its diction seems like a colonial derivation of something else. Perhaps Winton's attention to a certain idea of authentic Australianness means it never feels quite truthful. Among other things, the play is about nostalgia, but at the same time the writing itself seems to be crippled by nostalgia. It is curiously old-fashioned, like a play written about fifty years ago.

The structure consists of dialogues punctuated by long reflective monologues, with moments of theatrical poetic usually signalled by the presence of the Boy. Winton gives us a kind of cod Tennessee Williams with Australian accents, only without the Williams pathos and passion. Most of the time, it's clear that this is a novelist's play: the language tends to the descriptive rather than performative. There's not a lot of sense that language is an act, a necessary understanding for writing in the theatre. This transformation does occur sometimes in Winton's dialogues, and when it does, the difference is palpable.

Kate Cherry's production is a suitably lyrical rendition in a minor key, with silhouettes of masts against a changing sky and the water itself represented by a highly polished black floor. The central performance, John Howard's Baxter, is hugely enjoyable, and makes the most of the text. Baxter is in fact the only character to whom anything happens; everyone else just witnesses it happening to him, doing a kind of psychological striptease along the way.

Given my reservations, and they are considerable, Rising Water wasn't nearly as bad as it might have been. For all its dramaturgical vagueness and its pandering to the dinner-party-fodder aspect of culture, I feel a bit eccentric for confessing that I was sitting there thinking, well, at least the man knows how to write a sentence. There are a few playwrights who could learn that skill to their benefit.

Pictures: Top: Trevor Jamieson in Namatjira. Photo: Brett Boardman. Bottom: Alison Whyte and John Howard in Rising Water. Photo: Gary Marsh

Namatjira by Scott Rankin, created with the Namatjira family. Set design Genevieve Dugard, composer and music director Genevieve Lacey, costumes by Tess Schofield, lighting designe by Nigel Levings, sound design by Tim Atkins With Trevor Jamieson, Robert Hannaford, Derik Lynch, Kevin Namatjira, Lenie Namatjira, Michael Peck, Elton Wirri, Hilary Wirri, Kevin Wirri. Malthouse Theatre and Big hArt, until August 28.

Rising Water by Tim Winton, directed by Kate Cherry. Costumes and set by Christina Smith, lighting by Matt Scott, sound design and composition Iain Grandage. With Geoff Kelso, John Howard, Alison Whyte, Claire Lovering, Stuart Halusz and Louis Corbett. Black Swan State Theatre Company at Melbourne Theatre Company, Arts Centre Playhouse, until September 10.


James Waites said...

How often do you write a piece as substantial as this and inspire no comment? Weird... I thought you did very well with Namatjira - a 'commercial' work from Big hArt, but as you observe purposely so. And good for you to pay attention to Scott Rankkin's thinking and writing. By the time Big hArt fans like me finish talking about 'community consultation' (sounds like medicine and often is) and that sexy fella Trevor Jamieson - we've usually run out of puff. It was my plan to see Namatjira again in Canberra or Wollongong, with the intention of writing something about 'the script'. I will still go see, but you covered the assignment quite wonderfully here - so some pressure to get it right (for posteriority - ie those of us who sit around) is 'dramatically' reduced. Thank=x heaps! Love your work...

Alison Croggon said...

Bless you, James! Actually, the "no comment" thing does happen a bit on my more engaged reviews!

DS said...

Sometimes the lack of comment reflects the fact that some of us feel that there's really not much we can add. I only managed to get to Namatjira this afternoon, and your review (which I hadn't read till five minutes ago) reflected my own experience. And the play was rapturously received - the most enthusiastic response of any Malthouse audience I've been part of (granted, I've only been in Melbourne and going to Malthouse for about 18 months). Though, I will say re: Rising Water, I think your review was much more generous than the play deserved.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi DS - I thought I was less than kind! Just goes to show that you never can tell...

Chris Boyd said...

Big hArt are upfront about seeking connection with their audiences, and in their oscillation between these contradictory qualities of truthfulness and authenticity, this is what they achieve. The key is the art.

It's always a pleasure to watch you tackle shows and ideas from first principles Alison. But one word has to be added to the equation: authority. The right to speak -- both in the 'to reveal' and 'to tell' senses of the verb -- is critical in all Aboriginal art... hence the "careful signals of... authenticity."