Hecate. Pic: Dana Weeks

Reviews, Stage

Perth Festival Postcard 1: Grounding and ‘Hecate’

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Perth Festival Director Iain Grandage’s inaugural program reflects his passion for music (of all genres) and Indigenous collaboration (in many forms), as well as his love for Perth itself, where he was raised and began his career. All three reflect his professional background as a home-grown West Australian artist who’s also worked extensively around the country as a cellist, composer and music director, especially in the context of theatre and performance with companies like Black Swan, Malthouse and Belvoir St, and with Aboriginal artists on projects like Corrugation Road and The Black Arm Band.

I wasn’t in Perth for the opening week, which consisted entirely of First Nations works. These included Bungul, a celebratory staging of legendary Yolngu musician Gurrumul Yunupingu’s final album, co-directed by Nigel Jamieson and Yolngu elder Don Wininba Ganambarr, created in collaboration with the Yunupingu family, and featuring Yolgnu dancers and songmen, the WA Symphony Orchestra, and large-screen video projections of Yolngu art and country. Also showing was Bennelong, Stephen Page’s searing work for Bangarra Dance Theatre based on the early settlement-era Eora leader’s complex life and legacy (which I saw at Adelaide Festival in 2019 and reviewed on this website).

However, last week I saw three other First Nations works (two of which also opened the previous week). Hecate is an adaptation of Macbeth by local Noongar theatre company Yirra Yaakin (in association with Bell Shakespeare) performed entirely in Noongar language. Bran Nu Dae is the iconic semi-autobiographical coming-of-age road-trip rock/country/gospel/blues musical by Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles, set in 1960s Broome and sung in English and Nyul Nyul, which was first produced by Black Swan and debuted at Perth Festival in 1990, became a hugely successful film in 2010, and has now been remounted in a new production by WA Opera.

Last but not least, Black Ties is an intercultural and audience-immersive wedding rom-com with songs, co-produced by Ilbijerri (Australia’s longest running First Nations theatre company, based in Melbourne) and Te Rehia Theatre (a Maori company based in Auckland), co-directed by Rachael Maza and Tainui Tukihawo (who are also the companies’ Artistic Directors), and co-written by John Harvey and Tukiwaho (who also plays a lead role in the show).


Hecate is the brainchild of Kyle Morrison (who also plays Lennox and other roles) and Kylie Bracknell (the show’s director, adaptor and co-translator with her husband Clint Bracknell, who is also its musical director, composer and sound designer). Morrison and Bracknell are both longstanding artistic pillars of Yirra Yaakin; Morrison recently stepped back from the role of Artistic Director, and Bracknell has a long history with the company and others around the country as an actor, director, writer and dramaturg.

The origins of the show lie in Morrison’s love of Shakespeare and passionate commitment to Noongar culture, and Bracknell’s equally dedicated focus on Noongar language. For some years now she’s applied herself to the task of translating Shakespeare into Noongar; the efforts of both led to the presentation of selected Shakespearian Sonnets in Noongar at The Globe in London in 2012. A subsequent invitation from Bell Shakespeare in Sydney led to the development of Hecate, with the support of Noongar elder Roma Winmar as language editor and consultant.

The production has a cast of nine Noongar actors, some of whom learnt Noongar language for the first time during workshops and rehearsals. The creative team also includes lighting designer Mark Howett and movement director Janine Oxenham, who are both Indigenous WA artists, as well as significant contributions from white collaborators, including set and costume designer Zoe Atkinson, dramaturg Kate Mulvany, and Bell Shakespeare Consultants and Associate Directors Peter Evans and James Evans.

A key element in this process is karla (fire), which burns but also heals…It’s worth noting here that karla is also the theme of this year’s Festival, and has acquired an eerie resonance in the light of what’s occurred this summer across the continent.

The show is performed entirely in Noongar language (without surtitles). A detailed synopsis in the program reveals that the plot mostly follows Shakespeare’s play almost scene-by-scene. The most significant change (as indicated by the title) concerns the character of Hecate (Della Rae Morrison, who also plays Lady Macduff), who in the original play is the traditional goddess of witchcraft, but only appears in two scenes that are usually cut. Here she becomes the central figure: a matriarchal spirit of kaartdijin (knowledge) seeking to restore the boodjar (land or ‘Country’) to health from a mysterious sickness that afflicts it.

A key element in this process is karla (fire), which burns but also heals; and a central feature of the set is a ngarma or hole in the floor from which unseen flames cast a flickering light, like the mouth of a cave or underground passage that leads to the centre of the earth – or possibly hell itself. It’s worth noting here that karla is also the theme of this year’s Festival, and has acquired an eerie resonance in the light of what’s occurred this summer across the continent.

Other characters in the play have been modified accordingly to correspond with this change in the status of Hecate, and the shift in underlying themes that accompanies it, to encompass a primordial realm of chthonic powers and matriarchal spirituality. The Witches become a kind of Greek chorus (played by the rest of the ensemble) of male and female trickster figures or ‘Mischief Makers’, who serve Hecate, but are also reprimanded by her for going beyond their brief in their dealings with Macbeth (Maitland Schnaars, who gave what was for me the performance of the night, as a deeply introverted and tormented warrior/husband/regicide/tyrant).

Pic: Dana Weeks.

The other significant change is that Banquo’s son Fleance (a radiant Cezera Critti-Schnaars, who also plays Macduff’s son and other roles) becomes a young woman, who is saved and protected by Hecate, and whom the goddess finally (and invisibly) crowns as a kind of female co-regent with Malcolm (a similarly luminous Mark Nannup) at the end of the play, just as in Greek myth the goddess Hecate assists the earth mother Demeter to find her lost daughter Persephone, and becomes Persephone’s companion and minister in the Underworld.

Admittedly this strand of the plot was ultimately a little unclear to me – but then again, it’s also the most obscure aspect of the original play, almost like what Freud calls the navel of the dream. I also reminded myself that in the final analysis (as the absence of surtitles indicates) Hecate is not a work that is primarily made or intended for a wajdela or whitefella audience, but for Noongar people, theatre artists and audiences to reclaim and celebrate their language and culture.

Apart from these changes most of the action and (as far as I could tell) much of the dialogue (or at least its content) remains surprisingly faithful to Shakespeare’s play, or at least a condensed version of it. In fact, I found Hecate less satisfying on this level than when (as with the figure of Hecate herself) it swerved or departed and took off from the original to become its own autonomous (and autochthonous) work (including when it did so at the cost of ‘white’ intelligibility).

At times however, it felt less like a fully-fledged adaptation or even translation than a kind of summary or illustration of key scenes and speeches. These were often comprehensible to non-Noongar speakers through non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures, recognisable word-patterns – ‘benang, benang, benang’ (‘tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’) being a notable example – or even the names of the characters (which remained in English).

The visual design of the show … restricts itself to a minimalist aesthetic verging on abstraction. 

This impression was reinforced by an acting style that in some instances seemed reductive and even stereotyped. Perhaps this was intended as a kind of homage or (conversely) parody in relation to ‘Shakespearian’ acting or Elizabethan humour, for example in the case of more broadly comic characterisations like the Murderers or the Mischief Makers. For me however such moments undermined the production’s overall integrity.

This leads me to the visual design of the show, which restricts itself to a minimalist aesthetic verging on abstraction. Most of the characters (with the notable exception of Hecate) wear contemporary street-clothes (hoodies, jeans, t-shirts), with swords or daggers being replaced by martial-arts style movement and hand-chops (fight choreography is by Rubeun Yorkshire, who also plays Banquo, and makes a formidable Ghost). Neither the physical nor metaphysical world of the play (with the exception of Hecate herself) is transposed into an imaginary historical version of traditional Noongar culture – along the lines for example of Kurosawa’s medieval Japanese cinematic re-imaginings of Shakespeare.

Nor does the production invent a post-modern or hybrid world like ‘Verona Beach’ in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet, which might here take the form of an ‘alternative historical’ version of the present (or vision of the future) in which colonisation has never taken place (or somehow been reverse-engineered).

Without some kind of imaginary or alternative contextual grounding, I found I didn’t quite know ‘where I was’, or where the story was taking place – other than in a theatre. In other words: a traditionally ‘white’ cultural space, which has historically excluded Aboriginal people (at least until the advent of Aboriginal theatre, through the work of pioneering white companies like Black Swan or First Nations companies like Ilbijerri or Yirra Yaakin).

Indeed it largely continues to do so, whether through covert segregation in the form of predominantly white programming, casting, ticket prices and cultural protocols, or architecturally by abstracting from any real sense of place (regardless of pre-recorded Welcome to Country announcements, even when these are in Noongar). Especially given the play’s content and form of expression, I felt almost oppressively as if I were still in a ‘white’ space, and found myself wishing I were outside and more literally ‘on Country’.

In this regard, the strongest element in the set design – apart from the ngarma holes in the floor (more of which were revealed in the course of the play, perhaps suggesting some kind of ‘chthonic invasion’ or reverse-colonisation of the space) – is a scrim at the back of the stage, onto which is projected what looks like a digitally realised landscape featuring the silhouettes of trees against a night sky filled with stars.

As well as being reminiscent of Macbeth’s reference to the ‘rooky wood’ in which ‘light thickens’, the image suggests the presence of boodjar (land) and djinda (cosmos) as spiritual entities, and situates the play against a background of Noongar cosmology. The technology and aesthetics of its realisation however evoked for me a visual simulation of Nature, rather than the cultural framework (whatever form this might take) through which Nature is tangibly experienced. As such it remained for me an illusion, and ultimately an image of loss.

In contrast, the prologue and epilogue to the show take place in actual Nature – mediated by actual Noongar culture – in the form of Hecate Kambarnap, a gathering place amongst the trees outside the theatre in the Subiaco Arts Centre gardens. The pre-show ceremony takes the form of a storytelling event around a campfire that concerns the mythical origins of the land’s custodianship by human beings. The story is told (in English) by Noongar elder Mitchella Hutchins (dressed in a traditional animal skin cloak), and I loved the event’s simplicity and inclusiveness.

Similarly at the end of the show we went back outside for a healing ceremony involving cleansing smoke. Here I felt the spiritual weight of the play being addressed, once again primarily on behalf of Noongar audience-members and (especially) cast-members. The text and performance of Hecate invoke powerful forces and traumatic associations.

The former includes the traditional raising of spirits through whistling (which interestingly is also considered bad luck inside a theatre – much like saying the name ‘Macbeth’– in traditional Western theatre lore) and the summoning and sleepwalking soliloquies of Lady Macbeth (a chilling performance by Bobbi Henry); the latter extends to the massacres of Aboriginal women and children by white men across the continent, evoked by the slaughter of Lady Macduff and her son, and even more powerfully for me in the scene that followed, when Lennox (in an almost unbearably anguished performance by Morrison) broke the news to Macduff (an intense Ian Wilkes).

Above all however Hecate attests to the ongoing dispossession of Aboriginal land, culture and language that continues today. The impact of this last and most insidious form of cultural genocide was the most powerful aspect of the show for me. This was made palpable during a Q&A after the performance I saw, when Schnaars told the audience how Bracknell announced at the beginning of rehearsals that no English would be spoken for the first hour of every day, and he walked out (and almost didn’t come back) because of the rage and shame it brought up in him that his parents had chosen to raise him speaking English, and not Noongar.

The other telling moment for me during the Q&A came when Yorkshire said that his greatest sense of achievement during the entire production came when his father (a dawn-to-dusk working man who had never been to the theatre in his life) came to see the show on opening night. Then he told the story of how his father arrived late, and the ushers wouldn’t let him in until a suitable break in the performance, even when he explained to them that he had come to see his son onstage. Eventually he was let in, and after the show he told his son that he was proud of him. He also told him that the show was good, but that it would have been even better if they had done it down by the Swan River, so that everyone could come.

In his next Postcard, Humphrey reviews Bran Nu Dae, Black Ties and Anthem. Postcard from Perth Festival #3 will cover Ancient Voices, the Chamber Music Weekend, Garrick Ohlsson and Kate Tempest.

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