Taking place here in London, Big hArt’s production of Namatjira offers audiences a poetic engagement with Aboriginal Australia in the heart of the empire responsible for its colonisation. Sharp humour, playful performances and a moving story of a life that spanned most of the 20th century all combine to make a magical and powerful piece of theatre.
Scott Rankin’s script and Trevor Jamieson’s performance gently arrest a theatre audience that is presumed to be largely non-Aboriginal with the racist violence past and present that has shaped Australia – and by relation, the UK. The humour is the play’s most powerful tool, with moments of comedy found at every step and the chemistry between Jamieson and Derik Lynch bringing many laughs. The production is not shy to represent the reality of white British racism that Albert Namatjira encountered at many stages of his life and career, and does so with fierce integrity, notably using the critical distance of Black actors playing white racists to make the sharpest critique.
Albert Namatjira’s life led him to be fluent in at least three languages, to be an internationally renowned painter, to be respected in his community, and for his power and influence to be coveted by the Australian state. Mixing Aranda, German and English in song and styles of storytelling, Namatjira asks what is the potential of intercultural encounters, and examines the violence and tragedy when one group attempts domination.
The script was shaped by Albert Namatjira’s surviving family and community, and two of his grandchildren are part of the performance. At a time when Aboriginal Australian cultures are often presented as historical, this tracing of an Aboriginal figure who traversed cultures, art forms and languages reaffirms the continuity of Aboriginal cultures to this day despite the on-going onslaught of settler colonialism.
During the visit Albert Namatjira’s grandchildren alongwith the performers were invited to meet the Queen, as Albert himself had done in 1954. Lenie Namatjira wrote powerfully in the Guardian of the meeting:
We want support from the government to start an arts centre in Alice Springs. We want more funding to support Aboriginal art centres so we can keep painting strong for generations. I am asking for art centre because we, the artists, want our own art centre so that no-one can control us – so we can own our own art. We want to be able to support our young ones and keep them strong and proud, so they can show their culture and country in their work. And we want them to start up before the rest of us get too old.
We need to keep our art and stories strong.