Fire, Fire, Burning Bright

Jonathan Marshall

The 2002 Melbourne Festival opened with Fire, Fire, Burning Bright (Marnem, Marnem Dililib Benuwarrenji), a 2-act presentation from the recently formed Neminuwarlin Performance Group from the east of the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The first act was a fascinating contemporary mix of stylised pantomime and everyday ‘non-performance’, narrating the poisoning and murder of black seasonal workers early in the 20th century by a white station owner as retribution for the killing of a bullock. The second was the dance cycle (initiated after World War I) which inspired Fire, Fire…, relating the spirits’ journey from their burning corpses, up the local hills, across country of other Koori peoples and then to the coast near the Port George Mission where many Kimberley people later moved.

The 2 acts were distinct in form and content and the reason they were collared together remained unclear. Indigenous people watching the original dances would have been familiar with the broad history of the massacre: the dances are largely unconcerned with questions of cause and character. Rather, they were a densely coded form of spiritual mourning, the Kimberley people using their language and mythos to make sense of events such as the effect of white settlement on geographic mobility and economic relations. The production did away with the patronising assumption that Indigenous culture is ‘ancient and unchanging.’

The abstract, iconic language of Kimberley Aboriginal forms was particularly alluring. Woorranggoo—standards of coloured wool stretched over crossed sticks—were gently rotated during one sequence, then later used in a stabbing motion or held high behind the back, evoking flames, the sunset into which the spirits first moved, and the rifles which the Aborigines were bemused to see shouldered by white soldiers departing for the Front.

By playing their former bosses in whiteface, the black stockmen added a particularly intriguing, Brechtian sense of performative inversion. These ‘whitefellas’ offered only torrents of abuse to their black employees, while another more sympathetic gubba who fed the hungry spirits later reflected: “Who were those men, that I gave fish to?” Whites never truly saw or talked to black Australians. Moreover the black authors perceived a far more multicultural bush than is generally recognised, an itinerant Afghan and a Chinese man both warning the men not to return to their vengeful boss. The repetitive action of Act I placed it firmly within the realm of mythic time—but it was no less historic for this.

Ultimately though, there were too many repetitions and the continuous, successive performance of both acts was too taxing for theatre audiences. Indigenous song cycles often run all day and although it was interesting to settle into another sense of time, the production was eminently unsuited to the tightly focused attention of Western theatrical presentation. Unnecessarily literal bush sound effects and projections and endless interruptions for explication further sapped the performance of theatrical power, giving it a static quality akin to museum display. Fellow gubba critics I spoke to consistently acknowledged this, but few were prepared to publicly critique a Koori performance. The simple addition of a meal break or alternating night performances of the 2 acts might have countered some of these dramaturgical weaknesses.

Fire, Fire, Burning Bright (Marnem, Marnem, Dililib Benuwarrenji, Neminuwarlin Performance Group, writer-director Andrish Saint-Claire with Peggy Patrick and cast, associate director, designer Tony Oliver, lighting Philip Lethlean, audio-visual design Chris Knowles; State Theatre, Oct 17-20.

RealTime issue #52 Dec-Jan 2002 pg. 6

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2002