Every word counts

Namatjira at Purcell Room

By Billie McAleer

This award-winning stage-texted play bought the haunting beauty of the central Australian desert to London’s South Bank for as soon as you walk in through the doors of the Queen Elizabeth Hall, you are drawn to a sublime collection of watercolour paintings of this landscape, while there on stage a subtle vista of gum trees and mountains and bush is being mesmerizingly painted before your eyes.  (See also the review within this website of the Australia exhibition at the Royal Academy, which this show comes in support of.)

And those two elderly scenery artists, and cast members, are the grandchildren of the renowned aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, the subject of the story.  And yet, almost singlehandedly, the powerful presence of Trevor Jamieson brings this dramatic biography to life with his portrayal of a full cast of key figures such as Namatjira’s family members, the German pastor who helped raise him at a mission, and his mentor the painter Rex Battarbee. 

Achingly beautiful aboriginal singing and solo violin accompany the unfolding tale.  Jamieson is a phenomally gifted storyteller and his voice and body literally hummed with the rhythms of Namatjira’s early days; growing up, learning languages, following in the steps of his ancestors dreamings, working as a ranch-hand and out in the bush learning to paint watercolours with his friend. With the unstinting help of Rex, Namatjira achieved great artistic success and became a cultural icon and darling of Australian high society, even meeting the young Queen Elizabeth visiting Sydney, and eventually he was granted the country’s first indigenous citizenship. 

Trevor Jamieson is wonderfully supported by Derik Lynch, who dresses to kill and plays, Shakespeareanly, all the roles of the important women in the story including, amongst others, Namatjira’s flirtatious girlfriend Rubina, and the culturally insensitive governor’s wife.  Between them the two actors jump deliciously from native tongues to the peachy speech of 1930s Sydney society to singing a 1980s disco song. Barry White if you must know.
And then, we find ourselves laughing with the actors again as they weave all well-known contemporary Australian humour into the script as it brilliantly and simultaneously deals with racism, and the discrimination of the aboriginal people.  As Namatjira’s life story unfolds these joking asides are left behind and we hang on Jamieson’s every spell-binding word as he plays out the tragedy that with the bestowed citizenship came only taxation and debt , and that supporting his extended family community brought only illness and a despairing death. 

The quietest of endings brought wave after wave of rapturous applause.  Trevor Jamieson and the cast truly painted a masterpiece with this unique and inspiring story of “dreamings” and art and friendship . 

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The Arts Council
The Arts Council
The Arts Council