Culture

Theatre

‘Hecate’: honouring two storytelling traditions

By Steve Dow
Australia’s first major Shakespearean production in Noongar language will retell ‘Macbeth’ at Perth Festival

Bobbi Henry (left), Trevor Ryan and Della Rae Morrison rehearse Hecate. Photograph by Dana Weeks

The Noongar language of Western Australia is endangered; few can speak it fluently. Recently, Perth Festival’s new associate artist Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn), who grew up in the town of Pingelly, 158 kilometres south-east of the state capital, has been teaching her non-Indigenous festival colleagues some of her mob’s words and phrases and how they function in the context of country, in between writing scripts in Noongar language for Australian and London stages.

Her fellow workers have been brave, unafraid to try to speak words that belong to the people who have occupied the state’s south-west for some 65,000 years. As well as needing to comprehend the language’s connections to people and place, the pronunciation can be a challenge: “English is forward-projected in the mouth, whereas Noongar is swallowed; the words are actually towards the back of the mouth,” she says.

Under the new artistic directorship of Iain Grandage, Perth Festival has devoted the first week of its 2020 season to Indigenous Australian programming, and Bracknell, whom he appointed, has been a critical link between the festival and Indigenous creatives. When I speak to Bracknell, she is seated in a cafe, finishing the writing of what is, for her, the most personal of these shows, the Subiaco-based Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s work Hecate, which will be performed for each of its 90-minute shows from February 6 to 16 entirely in Noongar language, with no surtitles or translator.

Nine years ago, former Yirra Yaakin artistic director Kyle J. Morrison put forward the idea to translate Macbeth into Noongar. The project became a “beast”, Bracknell admits. “It really is no easy feat and something I have no desire to repeat, at this point. The idea was from left field and incredibly ambitious, and crazy, to put it plainly. Crazy – in our language we say kardi … so if we’re looking at a man and trying to tell someone he’s crazy, we’d say, ‘He kardi.’”

“But this is [also] such a fantastic vehicle to marry ancient practices of arts and culture with a text everybody knows and as a platform to keep our language spoken amongst each other.”

Hecate is a minor character who appears briefly in Macbeth (act three, scene five) and may be understood as the leader of the three witches. In this new work, however, Hecate, played by Della Rae Morrison, is instead the focal point and is presented as a spiritual figure trying to keep the world in balance.

It is not the first time the Bard’s works have been used as a way of preserving Noongar language: in 2012, while also acting as translator, Bracknell was one of the Yirra Yaakin performers who recited Shakespeare’s sonnets in Noongar language on stage as part of the Globe Theatre’s Cultural Olympiad in London, an “incredible, magical, inspirational experience”, she says, which “injected a lot of hope and possibility into our souls and into our hearts”. Her editor on both projects has been Noongar elder Aunty Roma Yibiyung Winmar.

In 2017 Bell Shakespeare came on board with the Macbeth project, with Kate Mulvany appointed dramaturg and James Evans and Peter Evans as education officers. When the two theatre companies first met, the conversation turned to how the scene featuring Hecate is often cut from productions, to keep the focus on Macbeth. Bracknell says she felt “compelled to stand up for Hecate”, this “strong matriarchal figure; somebody who has a responsibility to keep a harmonious balance in a spiritual realm”. It was a lightbulb moment: Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s tale of bloody revenge and grief told from Hecate’s perspective.

In the hard slog of translation, Bracknell took different approaches: “With the sonnets, I did want to keep it to the iambic pentameter and the rhyme,” she says. “With Hecate, however, it’s simply too difficult and not appropriate to simply match Shakespeare’s text, because you can’t do that with any two languages; you’re always going to end up compromising and stripping the integrity and fluidity and the beautiful tonal delivery.

“So there isn’t a rhyme, necessarily, but what I am doing with this work is wanting to honour our oldest style of storytelling. So there’s song in it, without giving too much away.”

The original play’s lens of witchcraft, with its negative connotations and connection, to the feminine is also altered, says Bracknell, and reframed from a more positive, Indigenous perspective: “Some of the women in our community are very strong, and we go to them to help us see things better. I wanted to add some enlightenment to what a character like Hecate is all about.”

Working with her husband, Clint Bracknell, on this new translation, Bracknell came to understand that it was important to add Noongar song, as well as speech, to the script. “We sing a lot, as Aboriginal people,” she says. “The poetics and the rhyme and the iambic pentameter that Shakespeare works towards – which a lot of people talk about, the heartbeat – a lot of our ceremonies and songs are also based on that heartbeat and that connection to heart.

“I’ve come to learn our people sang a lot, and actually sang more than spoke at times, because words would accompany our body language, which was an integral part of our communication. Observing people, watching what’s happening in nature – [it’s] something that I’m sure William [Shakespeare] would have done when he was writing about these things; he’d have to have studied the elements too.

“Whilst there might not be a direct connection between how he wrote and how we might adapt it into our language, there are certainly alignments to the approach and the strength of those things in nature that inspire the work.”

Bracknell does not consider herself a fluent Noongar speaker, incidentally. “There are roughly about 1500 words maximum that we know of,” she says. “There are around 450 words that we use in the adaptation. I definitely don’t use all of those 450 words daily. [But] if I had a speaking community, I definitely could become a fluent speaker. That’s what we’re building here.”

The good news is that 2019, the International Year of Indigenous Languages, saw an increase in people wanting to speak Australian Indigenous languages, she says, but connecting to people and place is paramount: “If you don’t use Aboriginal language holistically,” she says, “then you’re missing the point.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Bobbi Henry (left), Trevor Ryan and Della Rae Morrison rehearse Hecate. Photograph by Dana Weeks

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