Tom E Lewis, creator and player of 'The Shadow King' in the Sydney Festival 2014

Posted by Jeremy Eccles | 19.12.13

There was a time after the great Olympic Dreaming Festival of 1997 when I thought the case had been made for all Australian multi-arts festivals to incorporate a serious Indigenous element in their programming as a matter of course. Apart from the mad Peter Sellers in Adelaide, it never quite caught on – until now. In Sydney, a sputtering effort 2 years ago taught the lesson that a big new work doesn't always work. So, after the triumph of the STC's long-planned Secret River in 2013, Director Lieven Bartels has wisely booked in two established shows for 2014, and gambled on a third – Black Diggers, which will be premiering at the Opera House.

'The Shadow King'
offers the greatest possibilities., partly because it's based on the rather well known model of King Lear! Like the great Ong Ken Sen before him, Tom E Lewis has realised that the inbuilt familiarity of a play like Lear allowed him to Indigenise it without losing the audience, even while mixing his languages through English, Aboriginal kriol (which has “rediscovered the poetry in Elizabethan English”) and smatterings of unfamiliar Aboriginal languages like Gupapuyngu. Remember 'Ten Canoes'? All in that language. Well, the gorgeous Frances Djulibing has come from Arnhemland to join the Leary cast, along with Lewis himself (his career starting all those years ago in 'The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith') and Jim Bani (the good brother in 'The Straights' playing the bad brother Edmund, and the hero in 'Mabo'). Michael Kantor is co-creator and director.

The Shadow King
was created and produced in close consultation with Indigenous elders – and, like the original, is very much concerned with land....Country in Aboriginal terms, not property in the feudal sense. Michael Kantor explains: "Lear is about who can have the hubris and audacity to claim they own the land. It's the antithesis of how Indigenous people think of the land: the land is not something that can be owned, the land owns them." The King is in for a surprise.

With music composed and performed by leading indigenous musicians Bart Willoughby and Selwyn Burns, The Shadow King is set to rock and roll. Supported by the Federal Major Festivals Initiative, it debuted at this year's Melbourne Festival and will tour around Australia in 2014, to the Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane Festivals after Sydney.

The Shadow King has 5 performances at Carriageworks 23/26 Jan.

Taking its name from the Guwayi bird that calls when the tide is turning, Gudirr Gudirr is both a solo dance and video work and a warning cry to a people facing the complexity of cultural change.

Physical theatre company Marrugeku makes innovative intercultural works that explore the contemporary experience of Aboriginal people in north-west Australia where desert meets sea, where Australia meets Asia and where cultures intertwine, fuse and morph.

Gudirr Gudirr is conceived and performed by the Artistic Director of Marrugeku, self-described “daughter of Broome‟ and Yawuru language teacher, Dalisa Pigram. She's related to those prolific musos, the Pigram Brothers and to Patrick Dodson, Pigram‟s grandfather who drew her attention to the Guwayi bird.

“My grandfather found similarities in the function of this bird and both the work I do in my community helping to keep my language alive, and the work I do with Marrugeku,” said Pigram. “It's a warning, and a good starting point for me to look to what I wanted to tell - making a piece exploring ways that the tide is turning metaphorically for my community. The Kimberley region holds one of the highest suicide rates in the world and I believe we need to shine a light on that issue. We also have the threat of major industrialisation just around the corner, which will change our country and people forever… We need to look at new ways to take our cultural knowledge forward, keeping old ways strong in a new light.”

''Gudirr Gudirr
is looking at the concerns I have in this moment in time for my town and people. And when I say people I mean not just Aboriginal people, Broome people,'' she clarifid. ''And in a way towards the end of the show it's a celebration that we're still standing, we're still going, we're still actually doing quite well.''

Pigram's dance movements “unravel, unsettle and consume” in this hour-long work, which is directed by Koen Augustijnen, former lead artist with Belgium's les ballets C de la B.

Sets and video are by Queensland's Vernon Ah Kee, and music by Belgian sound designer Sam Serruys and songwriter Stephen Pigram.

I look forward to finding out whether Pigram's Gudirr Gudirr is related to Rover Thomas's dreamed ceremony, Goorirr Goorirr from the other side of The Kimberley.

Gudirr Gudirr has 5 performances at Carriageworks 16/19 January.

Finally, and not unrelated to the centenary of the start of the First World War next year, the Sydney Festival is presenting the world premiere of Black Diggers at the Sydney Opera House. Directed by the Indigenous Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre Company, Wesley Enoch, and written by Tom Wright, it uncovers the contribution of Aboriginal Diggers during the First World War, following their exceptional stories from their homes to the battlefields of Gallipoli, Palestine and Flanders. An all-male, all-Indigenous cast will evoke these heroic men, largely unknown to history.

While Black Diggers will evoke the broader tragedy of war and the particular tragedy of Indigenous Australians' participation, it will also celebrate and affirm their legacy, placing the Indigenous soldier within the canon of how we, as a country, think of the soldiers who created the ANZAC legend.

Moving through three phases of the soldiers' involvement in the Great War – enlistment, life in the trenches, and returning home – the story of Douglas Grant becomes the through-line to this theatrically robust work.

Sydney Festival Director, Lieven Bertels, says of the work: “In the town next to mine in Belgium a lone Aboriginal Anzac digger lays buried, Private Rufus Rigney - Service No. 3872 - a brave Ngarrindjeri boy from the shores of Lake Alexandrina, South Australia. He chose to fight for a country that wasn't even his according to the government of that time. Later, I discovered almost 1000 Aboriginal diggers had fought in WW1. I felt we had to tell their story before we start to commemorate the Anzac centenary in 2015.”

The central figure of Douglas Grant is typical these conflicting stories. He was born in approximately 1885 in the Bellenden Ker Ranges in Queensland. As a baby, his parents were killed in either a massacre or a raid, and he was rescued by a members of a collecting expedition from the Australian Museum, Robert Grant. Sent to Robert's parents in Lithgow, Robert later adopted Douglas, who was raised and educated with his son Henry in Annandale. Douglas worked as a draughtsmen in Sydney for 10 years before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916. While regulations against Aboriginals leaving the country without government approval initially prevented Douglas from leaving with his Battalion, regulations were later lifted and he left for France in August that same year. In April 1917, Grant was wounded and captured in Bullecourt and held as a POW at Wittenburg, where he was studied by German doctors, scientists and anthropologists as an object of curiosity.

Repatriated to England in 1918, he visited his foster parents' relatives in Scotland and the next year embarked for Australia. Demobilised in July that year, he eventually settled in Lithgow, where he was active in returned servicemen's affairs and ran a “digger‟s session‟ on local radio. But Grant suffered profound rejection on his return home and developed alcohol problems. He was a literate man, and could play the bagpipes; he had, when he wanted, a thick Scottish accent. By the 1930s his foster parents and brother had died and he went to Sydney, where he worked as a clerk at Callan Park Mental Asylum (although some reports suggest he was an inmate). He died in 1951 in Prince Henry Hospital. He was unmarried.

The cast for Black Diggers includes Luke Carroll, David Page, Hunter Page-Lochard, and Meyne Wyatt.

Black Diggers has 10 performances at the SOH 17/26 January, Bookings for all three Indigenous shows can be done at 1300 856 876.

Sydney Festival

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Creator and performer Dalisa Pigram in 'Gudirr Gudirr' © Heidrun Lohr


Luke Carroll impersonates one of the 'Black Diggers' in Tom Wright and Wesley Enoch's play


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