Big hART. Her Majesty’s Theatre. 5 May 2012

While most Australians are probably acquainted with the name Namatjira and his controversial style of landscape watercolour, most would not know his fascinating life story.  This production will set the record straight.  Written by Australian theatrical polyglot, Scott Rankin, Namatjira is a faithful bio-piece generated with the blessings of Albert’s grand-kids - three of whom lurk in the dark upstage in this show, finishing off a screen comprising a chalk rendition of a Namatjira favourite.

The opening of the two acts sees famous South Australian portraitist, Robert Hannaford, putting the finishing touches on an annual Archibald submission of actor Trevor Jamieson, in his role as Albert Namatjira.  The painting was relegated to the Salon des Refusés in 2011 and there received the People’s Choice.  Jamieson, who is actually sitting for the portrait, springs to life, and with the assistance of Derik Lynch (2010 Sydney Theatre Award for Best Newcomer) takes us to dusty Hermannsburg for Albert’s early years, through the McDonnell Ranges on painting expeditions, and into the Melbourne salons. 

Jamieson not only is an excellent raconteur, but he also possesses a beguiling chameleon-like physical grace in movement and mime as he exchanges one character for another.  This is a piebald story illustrating with great reverence Albert’s life-long friendship with his art mentor, Rex Battarbee, and sympathetic and humourous exchanges with the German head of the Lutheran missionary at Hermannsburg. 

Lynch performs ancillary characters ranging from the young Queen Elizabeth - who decorated Albert with a coronation medal - to copious relatives and hangers-on of Albert’s own community who took advantage of the traditional sharing of plenty.  Albert became Australia’s first Aboriginal citizen (so he could pay taxes!), but in a perverse way this contributed to his downfall.  Rankin has amply captured Albert’s era with vignettes or quotes illustrating the excitement generated around him by white Australia, but also the patronising attitudes we like to think we don’t have any more.  Wind instrument accompaniment by Rhia Parker was reminiscent of wind through the casuarinas and shadowy lighting by Jim Atkins rendered a dream-like quality. 

Namatjira is a beautifully told, although sometimes languid, biography illuminating both the man and his times.  It doesn’t explain or blame – it just seems to say what happened, and it makes you sad.

David Grybowski

When: 5 to 12 May
Where: Her Majesty's Theatre
Bookings: Bass