Melbourne International Arts Festival, UWA Perth International Arts Festival and Sydney Opera House
13 October 2006
the Arts Centre, Fairfax Studio
Review by Christina Cass
“Ngapartji Ngapartji” translated from Pitjantjatjara is, “I give you something, you give me something”. This is also the title and themeof the emotional new work written by Scott Rankin of Big hART. Perhaps play is not the right word – it’s more an experience of a nation’s journey told by master storyteller and co-creator of the work, Trevor Jamieson, and it is not to be missed.
The uniqueness of this ‘experience’ is that the journey includes the audience. Rather than pay a few dollars, see some Aboriginal tale come to life, go out to dinner afterward and talk about the stock market, Rankin hopes the audience will take home history, language and new ideas based on age-old themes. “I give you something, you give me something”, is ancient barter. On one level, the ensemble teaches some songs and phrases from Jamieson’s homeland in exchange for coming to the show; but on another deeper level, it is about exchanging nations’ narrations.
No one is immune from the collective consciousness. Ngapartji Ngapartji is meant to blur the lines between cultures. Aboriginal, Japanese, Afghan, Greek and English stories are told. The language of experience during the Cold War of the 1950s-1980s is the common bond. The production explores the greater themes of dispossession and displacement from country, home and family through Jamieson’s own Pitjantjatjara story.
The set is an austere landscape of black sand and white powder with a large copper relief/mountain/desert where the story unfolds. Rankin cleverly uses this set piece to help Jamieson transform into his characters but also allow the supporting cast to tell their own cultural journeys. Through monologues in native tongues and English translations, and sublime movement and projection we begin to understand that this is not one man’s tale, but the tale of many. The tale of Diaspora – or the displacement of people and cultures throughout man’s history – unfolds before us.
For Jamieson’s family, who lived in Spinifex country where his nation encompassed an area in central Australian larger than that of Great Britain, it begins with his grandfather during the Cold War. The English Prime Minister, Clement Atlee asked then Prime Minister Robert Menzies if England could use the deserts of central Australia as a testing site for its newly developed atomic bombs. Menzies, without consulting Parliament said, “Sure, nothing’s out there anyway”.
These Maralinga atomic tests and their effect on one of the most ancient and isolated cultures in the world still have repercussions today. Jamieson takes us through the subsequent generations of his family with great skill – he switches between English and Pitjantjatjara and moves with catlike ease and humour that the audience barely realizes they’ve been witness to 60 years of cultural history. That is something to emphasize. Although this shameful topic is uncomfortable for many people, it is performed with great humour and intelligence. No finger pointing here, just a story that’s been missing from this nation’s narration; a story that should not be overlooked any longer.
Ngapartji Ngapartji is scheduled to perform in Sydney and Perth, then perhaps overseas. I believe Jamieson’s and the ensemble’s performance is not only highly entertaining and timely, but it is pure Aussie-born and bred theatre. There has been much discussion in the papers lately about the lack of a voice for Australian theatre, and the fact that Kristy Edmunds has shepherded this project through the 2005 and 2006 MIAFs, shows that there is commitment to make a change. Supporting this project may open the gate for others – benefactors and artists alike – to soon follow.
Learn more about the history, language and culture of the Pitjantjatjara people by signing up for online language classes or attending performances. You are not only broadening your own scope of knowledge, but you are helping a nation rebuild and redefine itself: “ngapartji, ngapartji”.
This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.