A Kimberley story that speaks to everyone
Victoria Laurie, ABC 720 online
The warrior who haunts the Kimberley
Review by Victoria Laurie
The ghost of Jandamarra has returned to the warrior's Kimberley heartland in a spectacular production, says 720's cultural reviewer Victoria Laurie.
Not many theatrical shows can claim to create history, but Steve Hawke's play 'Jandamarra' can make that claim on two fronts.
First, this show is probably the largest piece of theatre to tour several locations in Western Australia, with a cast and crew of over thirty people bringing the show to four Kimberley spots - Broome, Windjana Gorge, Halls Creek (30 July) and Kununurra (4-6 August).
Second, it brings real historical events home to the place they occurred; Windjana Gorge, in the craggy Napier Ranges, is where resistance leader Jandamarra hid from pastoralists and police trackers.
So what was it like to sit in the open-air audience at the gorge, where a portable stage of hessian, sticks and two large screens were erected in front of towering cliffs? It was thrilling, especially when stage lights played over the rocky natural backdrop.
This fine retelling of the Jandamarra story has many more strengths than the original version that debuted at the 2008 Perth International Arts Festival. Hawke's lengthy script has been pared back to create a tighter, dynamic show; co-directors Phil Thompson and Kelton Pell have ensured the spiritual aspects of Jandamarra's story are given prominence, aided by beautiful abstracted imagery by Bunuba artist Kaylene Marr. And composer David Pye's atmospheric soundscape ranges from ominous ripples of deep notes to denote the writhing Water Snake to the crack of a shotgun and the echoing screech of startled birds.
The extraordinarily diverse range of talent among cast members is managed to optimal effect - Bunuba-speaking actors like Danny Marr, Emmanuel Brown and Kevin Spratt create a powerful ensemble of warriors; Nyoongar actor Kelton Pell, who has learned Bunuba language, performs the role of storyteller with authority.
As Jandamarra, Damion Hunter gives depth to a character who, in real life, was torn between loyalty to his countrymen and service to his white masters.
In the late 1800s, as sheep and cattle were moved across virgin grasslands, pastoralists sought to wrest control of land from Kimberley Aborigines who had roamed the area for many generations.
Strong performances by Margaret Mills and Patsy Bedford are central to the poignancy of this frontier clash and the sadness it inflicted on both sides.
As Mary, a pastoralist's wife, Mills stands with her hands wrung in grief over the loss of her only son. On the other side of the stage stands Jandamarra's mother, Jini, who is destined to share the same fate.
As Jini, Bedford comes across as an imposing and dignified figure - it is Bedford's first acting role, which she combined with expert linguistic teaching of cast members (with fellow language expert June Oscar).
The imagery of Aboriginal men in neck chains bears witness to a dark part of 19th century Kimberley history - dozens of prominent tribal men were captured and transported far away to Rottnest Island, where some died of cold.
The communities they left behind were left depleted of men to hunt for and protect them.
Elsewhere I've talked about the underlying tension between Western theatre forms and Aboriginal story-telling -indigenous people have always told elaborate stories through dance and song, instead of chunks of text-based oration.
This production has some ungainly moments in which the English text seems intrusive or unnecessary.
Conversely, there are magical moments which hint at other ways of conveying meaning - like Trevor Ryan, as tracker Mingo Mick, conjuring up magical power to track down Jandamarra and blowing it to the four winds in a dramatic gesture of hands.
Or Emmanuel Brown's brilliantly funny cameo role as Jacky, a fawning, limping comic figure with a style of humour Aboriginal people in the audience immediately recognized and applauded.
Camping out 'on country' has clearly been a boon to the cast and crew; it has elevated the show's energy and sense of purpose, despite chilly nights and dew-drenched mornings.
The mood out at Windjana Gorge is upbeat, heightened by a performance of traditional dancing by Bunuba and Ngaranyin children and young adults before the first show.
This week, singer-songwriter Paul Kelly will travel out to perform at the final Windjana Gorge show before 'Jandamarra' moves on to Halls Creek and Kununurra.
Kelly's strong affinity with the story goes back to his musical arranging for the 2008 Perth Festival production, and to even earlier musical compositions about the Kimberley renegade and his exploits.
Kelly once described the Jandamarra story as "(having) it all - blood, betrayal, sex, war, family, mateship and magic. It's history that speaks to the present day."
Apart from triumphing over huge logistical obstacles, this touring version is a great achievement in keeping that history alive.
Steve Bevis, The West Australian
Theatre review: Jandamarra
The West Australian
July 16, 2011, 11:29 am
By Steven Hawke
St Mary's College, Broome
"Listen up everybody. We are here to tell you a story about Jandamarra, a story from Bunuba country."
A Kimberley full moon shone down on an outdoor stage as co-director and actor Kelton Pell gruffly delivered the first lines to bring back to life an indigenous hero in front of a close-to hometown crowd.
About 400 people sat on blankets and folding chairs, eating curries from the St Mary's P & C as kids ran around on the footy oval outside the cyclone fencing demarcating the performance area.
With the next tour stop being Windjana Gorge, this was a far cry from the roos-in the spotlight world premiere in the hangar-like convention centre at the 2008 Perth Festival.
The 1890s Bunuba resistance leader is legendary in these parts for leading the fight against the white pastoral incursion around Fitzroy Crossing before being killed at 24.
So it is a triumph of logistics, persistence and passion that this multi-lingual play about his life has come home to the Kimberley 3˝ years after the Perth season.
Under new directors Pell and Phil Thomson, substantial work has been done to tighten and rectify some of the faults of the 2008 production, though the pacing and "bio-play" checklist of key incidents still impede an emotional response for those not connected to the story.
However, Jandamarra has many of the qualities of an ancient Greek myth-based drama, with its themes of hubris, betrayal, violence, magic and a hero tragically conflicted in his loyalties while tormented by an angry god.
This production replaces two narrators with three, who link its many scenes as Jandamarra falls in with the settler Bligh family, falls out with his own Bunuba people and then restores his bonds with them and his wounded country by leading the fight against the colonisers.
Patsy Bedford, as Jandamarra's mother Jini, and Margaret Mills as Mary Bligh, the mother of his ill-fated friend Lindsay, give the play much of its gravitas as narrators along with Pell's Bunuba elder Marralam.
Steve Turner is fine to watch as pastoralist Joe Bligh, a man obsessed at first by carving a kingdom out of "a million acres of virgin country" and then by his pursuit of Jandamarra, whom he blames for his son's death. Peter Docker swaggers terrifically as pioneer Alexander Forrest and the cavalier copper Richardson, who Jandamarra turns against to win back the faith of his people.
Damion Hunter does well conveying Jandamarras' early ebullience and curiosity, which descends into confusion and fear before he resolves to put things right.
Bryan Woltjen's set of elevated, snaking gangways draped in folds of hessian and upright sticks (representing the craggy Napier Ranges) allows the action scenes to play out against David Pye's evocative soundscape of birds, gunshots and hooves and Kayelene Marr's suggestive animations.
Whatever the merits of the play as a piece of drama with its many plot points to do with the Blighs, Richardson and Forrest's speeches in Perth, its best moments come with its representation of Bunuba culture and insights into clan affairs.
Pared-down surtitles allow the audience to take in the action and listen more closely to the Bunuba language itself and appreciate the traditional singing of Kristin Andrews, which is an integral part of the performance.
It will no doubt take on much more vivid power in the Bunuba heartland of Windjana Gorge.
Gail Jones, The Monthly
The Legend of Jandamarra: Theatre in the Kimberley
There's an instinctive civility at remote campsites: kind hailings and 'hello's, sometimes a random 'how's it going?' But there's also space and rectitude, appropriate moments of quiet - a respectful understanding that proximity to others living within the thin fabric of a tent carries its own social delicacy, its own forms of restraint. You hear other people's conversations - small endearments and banal chatter, 'night-night's and bedtime shufflings, then little choruses of snoring when everyone at last settles down.
At dawn, when the light is soft lemon and the air particularly sweet, small Kimberley doves begin the throb of their early morning call. No sound reminds me of my childhood more than this. Ud dood dood is the Indigenous name. (Most bird names in this part of the world are onomatopoeic.) Fires are lit and billies boiled. There is the sweet scent of butter and eggs frying. Close by, a couple of young travellers begin a folk-bluesy song, accompanying themselves with a tinny ukulele. A young man taps time with a spoon against a metal cup. It's an innocent sound, a small local celebration.
Bunuba country, Windjana Gorge, Kimberley region, 350 kilometres east of Broome, WA. The country is familiar - corrugated pindan roads, tormented-looking boabs, blossoming wattle and occasional glimpses of bright yellow kapok flowers. Brahman cattle wander with vague insouciance along and across the roads, and there are wallabies here and there, fleeing the sound of bush-bashing vehicles. It's well-watered country, host to freshwater crocodiles and lavish birdlife.
As four-wheel drives pass each other in clouds of red dust, something nostalgic and iconic also billows up; this is the Kimberley of back roads, self-reliance, honest-to-goodness dirt, a Kimberley intensified and made lurid by bouts of involuntary memory. I try to resist romanticism but it's not really possible. It began before I left Sydney: speaking with girlish excitement about my imminent trip, wondering what purity remained, what new discoveries.
This is a visit with my mother and older brother. It's a sentimental journey - since we're all compelled to reminisce - but it's also a journey to an art event. The staging of Jandamarra, a play honouring the life of the Bunuba lawman and warrior who led a battle of resistance against colonial settlers from 1894 to 1897, is to be performed in situ and in language - Bunuba, of which about 100 speakers remain, and English, Pidgin and Kriol. Written by Steve Hawke, with linguistic collaboration, it is a testament to the persistence and vitality of Indigenous history; Jandamarra's story still exists in oral form and it is through the generosity of Kimberley people that it is to be shared and reanimated.
Big mobs from Looma, Mowanjum, Halls Creek and Fitzroy Crossing attend a lively welcome to country. There are kids kicking up red dirt, elders with clap sticks; people mill around, relaxing together. It's genial, easy. Calm and merry. The light of the early morning in this special place takes on a new clarity. Strangers smile at each other. Children and dogs seem particularly happy. The two directors and the writer are grinning ear to ear. Locals laugh at jokes that blow-ins have no hope of understanding.
Jandamarra led guerrilla-style resistance to white pastoral settlement and also achieved status as a Jalgangurru, a man of magic power. Named 'Pigeon' by his adversaries, in his own country he was a figure of legendary acts, attributed the power of flight, superhuman strength and invisibility. He survived a shootout at Windjana Gorge but was eventually killed at Baraa (Tunnel Creek), after which his severed head was displayed as a trophy in Derby.
It's a bleak, rather bloody and complicated tale. There is a wonderful history of his life, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance, by Howard Pedersen and Banjo Woorunmurra - the custodian of the oral tale, who died in 2003. The theatrical production tracks Jandamarra's return to his people after spending time with pastoralists and white troopers, and endorses his gradual achievement of mythic status. Slides translate the Bunuba language and show the animated flight of a pigeon.
From time to time the backdrop - the rock face of Windjana Gorge - is brilliantly illuminated, stunning its audience with altered scale and otherworldly dimensions. My brother says it makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and I understand what he means - the place still holds history somehow, still insists on early meanings. When the actor shouts "Here!" we feel the weird profundity of return, the privilege of seeing a story knitted so utterly to its originating place.
Most moving, perhaps, is the repeated vision of Bunuba people yoked in neck chains. Jandamarra inaugurated his rebellion by freeing 16 of his people from these chains, and the trope returns again and again, the actors plodding up and down the angled stage, looking forlorn and forsaken. We can't really speak when the production finishes. There is the shyness, the reserve, that true artworks inspire. I link my mother's arm gently in mine. We head back to the campsite, shivering in the sudden cold.
Chill wind slides in early morning off the sheer cliff face. Windjana Gorge is a rock formation of ancient reef from the Devonian age, over 300 million years old. It's from the time when Australia was part of the supercontinent known as Gondwana. Ammonites and seashells are visible in the rocks, pale, detailed and impressively complete. My brother takes a fine photograph of a ridged trilobite. This material version of time is somehow reassuring.
As we walk together up the gorge, quiet again overtakes us. We're dreamy, self-enclosed, both looking up at the fork-tailed kites that circle and circle, floating above in silence, as they have done forever.
Guide To Bunuba Pronunciation
Ray Story A short sample story from Thangani Bunuba (Kimberley Language Resource Centre)
Notes on Translation
Playwright’s notes on the use of language in the play, and the translation process.
Warriors Language of Resistance
"Aboriginal insurgent Jandamarra and the words of his tribe are being brought to life on stage, Victoria Laurie reports"
The Australian, January 31, 2008