Adelaide Festival 2004: Gulpilil

Keith Gallasch, Gulpilil, Company B

David Gulpilil, Gulpilil

David Gulpilil, Gulpilil

Story-telling in various manifestations emerged here and there as a rich festival theme, whether in the musings of architect Marco Frascari (p30), the marvellous 6 hour reverie of interrupted tales from Forced Entertainment (p27) or in various works presented by Indigenous artists including Gulpilil, performed and co-written (with Reg Cribb) by David Gulpilil and directed by Neil Armfield. Apparently Gulpilil, who doesn’t read English, told stories from his life to Cribb and Armfield. These were arranged into a script and told back to Gulpilil who then performed them. The result is a performance enriched by its improvisational qualities with a tone that is both remarkably relaxed but also curiously volatile.

Gulpilil appears both at ease and restless on the large stage, thinking his way into stories, dropping into silences, regarding us as listeners with the necessary time on our hands— his time. He is not an actor who assumes an automatic contract between performer and audience: addressing us directly, he wants to make that contract, remind us of it, hold us to it with a gentle but firm cajoling. It’s as if in the cavernous space of the Playhouse he has to make sure we’re there. We have to forget our theatre manners and let him know we’re ready to go croc hunting with him, read English for him, recognise his films and share the recollection of his AFI Award speech (“I deserve this”). He wants to hear us. We want to hear him, and see him, a man who always moves like a dancer, long-limbed, graceful, sudden, a hunter sharing with us his respect for the totem of his mother’s clan: the crocodile. His is the dance of the hunter with the tools of his role (spear, woomera, twine) and a crocodile skull he addresses affectionately and playfully.
David Gulpilil, Gulpilil

David Gulpilil, Gulpilil

With Gulpilil we forever fall into 2 worlds. He describes himself as “David Gulpilil born with 2 legs in 2 different countries,” whether in his parents’ respective moieties, or uneasily astride the schism between the safety of his Arnhem Land community and the traps of the white film industry. This is epitomised by the slippery slope introduced to the young film actor by “that mad bugger” Dennis Hopper and John Mellion during the making of Mad Dog Morgan. Gulpilil “joins in the corroboree” of these whitefellas and in the long term the result is gaol for 6 months for drunken driving. “The bad spirit in your country tapped me on the shoulder.” In prison, he says, he becomes an expert and committed dish washer. Just as he inhabits multiple worlds so does he address the world in 2 ways resonant with the dynamic of the overall performance; with self-deprecating frankness and consummate pride. There is no middle ground. Similarly his stories oscillate between the yarn, where truth is a variable (he tells a string of stories about a missing finger all predicated with “It’s the truth”), and clear-eyed straight talk that speaks regret, disappointment and bitterness. The same white culture that has given him the fame of which he is so very proud has in many ways reneged on its promise and made that fame dangerous and unrewarded.

Gulpilil is a work rich in detail and observation. There are recollections of the making of Walkabout, of a boy appearing in a lap lap at Buckingham Palace and taking snaps at Cannes (the camera caused a bomb scare). There are personalities and political wit—he ‘phones’ Philip Ruddock at one point suggesting refugees be shown his tin ‘humpy’: “they’ll see how hard it is and they’ll row home.” Gulpilil bemoans the lives of “kids full of white ideas…boredom and kava.” What can he do? Teach and pass on his culture, he tells us. This is all framed in an easy-going theatricality of a broadly chronological telling with a patterning of themes and film excerpts, and simple staging; a chair, table, possessions and a fire against a huge backcloth. The arrival of The Wet, replete with thunder track, lightning and real water in a fine glasshouse spray, is one of the few moments of theatrical excess.

Gulpilil is a big one-man show, at least 2 hours plus an interval. The life may well warrant the duration and the performance our admiration, but, once the work settles, an uninterrupted 90 minute version might be more comfortable for the performer and more focused. Not that audiences thought so: standing ovations were the order of the day and there was the sense that audience and performer were at one. Gulpilil held us to our contract with charisma, skill and stories the like of which we’ve rarely heard.

Gulpilil, Company B, Dunstan Playhouse, March 1-14

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004