Maralinga Revisited

Jeremy Eccles: Desert Oaks, a painting project by the Oak Valley Community, Maralinga Lands

Think about Maralinga. What does the word conjure up? A mushroom cloud, probably, hanging malignly in the air; no land, no people. That was very much the line of thinking entertained by Lynette Wallworth, one of the Adelaide Festival’s Associate Directors 2 years ago. Shouldn’t we all—especially in Maralinga’s nearest capital, Adelaide—know more about the land and its people below the cloud?

And that radical way of thinking was/is intrinsic to the Peter Sellars’ Festival. If only he and/or the limp administration had been able to deliver on such original promise.

Mind you, that Maralinga idea has thrown up a pretty rich harvest. The proactive side of the notion involved sending the English video artists, Mongrel, out to work with the kids there on telling their stories with the latest technology and offering the Tjarutja elders, newly returned to Maralinga the idea of painting their experience. Victorian artist Lance Atkinson demonstrated techniques of acrylic painting at the elders’ request. This required the festival to conjure up its own visual version of what it did to take to Oak Valley, to appoint an arts adviser and set an arts centre in train. The paintings produced are a challenge—often combining a traditional dotted background with almost Pop art images of the Cloud and, in one case, an upside-down roo flying through the irradiated air. They hang outside the theatre where The Career Highlights of the Mamu is playing.

Mamu was a separate project in WA, eagerly seized on by Wallworth—because it involved the Wankatja people, who’d gone West rather than East when missionaries passed on the heartless government message that the land they had stories for, going back to the last Ice Age, was going to be irrevocably polluted by the British atom bomb test. They—at least the survivors amongst them—ended up around Kalgoorlie after a 300km walk through the Great Victorian Desert.

Twenty-seven-year-old Trevor Jamieson was born in Perth to Wankatja parents and describes himself as “hungry for the truth” about his origins. He envisaged a one-man show and began working with writer Scott Rankin, experienced in such story-telling through his work on Box the Pony with Leah Purcell. Somewhere along the line though, Jamieson’s family had a better idea and now all 17 of them are on stage round a campfire with 2 musicians and 3 screens at the back showing painted images, photos, documentary interviews and surtitles. Putting it baldly, the original show has not yet grown to encompass all these accretions, despite dramaturgy from Nick Enright, direction by Andrew Ross (the man who got Bran Nue Dae and the Jack Davis trilogy so right), a choreographer and 2 assistant directors.

But then, such documentary theatre encompassing a range from ancient dances to Super 8 interviews with elders out at Maralinga, is a pretty complex form. And one of the most affecting moments involved Trevor’s Auntie using language that was barely translated to tell of her parents and 2 siblings dying from radiation poisoning and/or the effort of walking through unknown desert country to Kalgoorlie, while a live camera revealed every emotion on screens behind her. Trevor had just told us how the men of the tribe had attacked the rolling radiation cloud with spears, identifying it as a Mamu Devil Spirit. At the other end of the theatrical spectrum, we’d also heard the tale of the first train sighted, scared off with spears: one hero had shat his pants, which he admitted to his mate in language. “You can’t say that”, his mate responded, “we’re supposed to be naked!” “Not to worry, they can’t understand what we’re saying”, the surtitles told us meta-theatrically!

Such a blend—that also ranged through powerful Hiroshima poetry and Country & Western sentiment—is always going to be dangerous. Where does a commissioning festival come in, trying to get it all right? The lesson of the Marrugeku Company’s chaotic Crying Baby is instructive. Revelations during the Performing Arts Market suggested that both Perth and Sydney Festival Directors had been fobbed off when querying its development with the line, “You don’t understand how Aboriginal work is made”, suggesting that as much rigour is needed in this important area as in any theatre-making.

Desert Oaks, a painting project by the Oak Valley Community, Maralinga Lands. The Career Highlights of the Mamu, Trevor Jamieson & Scott Rankin, director Andrew Ross, Black Swan Theatre, The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, March 2-5

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 4-5

© Jeremy Eccles; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2002