Play’s the thing to save a lan­guage

KYLIE BRACK­NELL BELIEVES A BODY OF WORK COULD HOLD THE KEY TO THE FU­TURE OF NOON­GAR CUL­TURE, WRITES KATE EMERY

The West Australian - - PLAY - He­cate is on from Fe­bru­ary 6-16 at Su­bi­aco Arts Cen­tre. Tick­ets $69 from perth­fes­ti­val.com.au

It reads like a Hol­ly­wood script in which a young in­genue, hav­ing never acted be­fore, turns up to an au­di­tion by chance, daz­zles the au­di­ence and as­cends to star­dom. It didn’t hap­pen to Kylie Brack­nell. Not quite.

But when Brack­nell turned up to Abo­rig­i­nal the­atre com­pany Yirra Yaakin as a 16-year-old she had never acted be­fore.

“I was look­ing to do some­thing in singing or mu­sic and they said ‘Well we don’t do any­thing like that but we hap­pen to have an au­di­tion hap­pen­ing right now today, did you want to read for one of the roles’,” Brack­nell, re­calls over coffee at a favourite North Perth coffee haunt.

“I’d never picked up a script be­fore or read or au­di­tioned for any­thing.”

Better yet, the play for which they were au­di­tion­ing had been writ­ten by Brack­nell’s grand­mother’s cousin’s daugh­ter.

“I thought, well, this is kind of serendip­i­tous, meant to be,” she says.

Well, al­most.

The “re­ally bad” au­di­tion didn’t put Brack­nell on that rocket ship to fame that a Hol­ly­wood ver­sion of her story might de­mand. But a few months later she was of­fered a two-year trainee­ship at Yirra Yaakin.

She stayed for 11 years.

Brack­nell, now 39, presents like some­one born to work in the­atre. She speaks like she is writ­ing a script in her head, paus­ing to con­sider ques­tions in a way that sug­gests she is con­sid­er­ing a re­sponse, not reach­ing for a past an­swer worn smooth by use.

But her tum­ble into the­atre only hap­pened be­cause Brack­nell, who grew up in Pin­gelly as part of the Farmer fam­ily that in­cluded Gra­ham “Polly” Farmer, moved to Perth to live with her grand­mother af­ter the death of her grand­fa­ther.

The idea was that they could “grieve to­gether”.

“Although there were times I’m sure my grand­mother wanted to send me back,” she says.

When the com­bi­na­tion of grief and a tough time at school — she bounced from schools in Pin­gelly, Balga and War­wick in quick suc­ces­sion — got too much, Brack­nell’s grand­mother was the one who marched her along to Yirra Yaakin. Brack­nell, then Farmer, didn’t even know such a thing as an Abo­rig­i­nal the­atre com­pany ex­isted.

The in­ter­ven­ing decades since that first au­di­tion have been char­ac­terised not so much by a me­te­oric rise as a com­bi­na­tion of hard graft and suc­cess and Brack­nell has carved out a rep­u­ta­tion as an ac­tor, writer and di­rec­tor.

She has ap­peared in pro­duc­tions of Black is the New White, The Cau­casian Chalk Cir­cle and Romeo and Juliet, while TV view­ers will have seen her in Red­fern Now and The Gods of Wheat Street. She has trans­lated Shake­speare son­nets into the Noon­gar lan­guage to per­form at Lon­don’s Globe the­atre and de­liv­ered a TEDx talk on the im­por­tance of in­dige­nous lan­guages.

In the past two years she has also become a mother to 21-month-old son Avery with her hus­band Clint Brack­nell, who is also her col­lab­o­ra­tor on her lat­est project: a Noon­gar lan­guage adap­ta­tion of one of Shake­speare’s most fa­mous plays, Mac­beth, for the Perth Fes­ti­val.

There is an ob­vi­ous line here about mother­hood be­ing Brack­nell’s hard­est role yet. But the am­bi­tion of this project, of which Brack­nell is di­rec­tor, adap­tor and co-trans­la­tor, makes dirty nap­pies and night feeds sound like no big deal.

The play, He­cate, takes its ti­tle from the

name of one of Mac­beth’s com­monly side­lined char­ac­ters. In this adap­ta­tion, He­cate, queen of the witches, is given cen­trestage and Shake­spearean English is benched for a lan­guage that is ge­o­graph­i­cally far closer to home but for­eign to most West Aus­tralians.

“I’ve been an aunty and mum for many years. In our cul­ture we say ev­ery­one’s a mother, it’s just some peo­ple aren’t birth moth­ers,” Brack­nell says of how mother­hood has only added to her sprawl­ing ex­tended fam­ily.

“All of this is what has in­spired He­cate, why I have brought her to the fore­front. Be­cause you could al­ways tell a story from so many dif­fer­ent an­gles.

“This adap­ta­tion was ac­tu­ally me stick­ing up for the only char­ac­ter that gets cut out of the show ev­ery time. And so I thought ‘OK, Wil­liam, I’m go­ing to em­bel­lish on the char­ac­ter that you didn’t have time to’.

“Be­cause you’re a man, you can’t re­ally write for a woman, so it’s no won­der she was only in one scene. Let me do that.”

The Noon­gar lan­guage is a per­sonal pas­sion for Brack­nell.

“I worry about the fact that only one per cent of our com­mu­nity speak our lan­guage,” she says. “It’s a cry­ing shame. That means that 400 or less peo­ple speak Noon­gar lan­guage and I ques­tion how many of them speak flu­ently. “I would ar­gue that 99 per cent of that 400 fig­ure don’t speak flu­ent, that they only know a hand­ful of vo­cab­u­lary.”

It would be easy to char­ac­terise the Noon­gar Shake­speare project as a bid to keep the lan­guage alive. How­ever, Brack­nell is a re­al­ist.

“I think Noon­gar lan­guage will die,” she says bluntly. “It’s some­thing that I haven’t been say­ing out loud for a num­ber of years be­cause I have wanted to hang on to the hope that the resur­gence could save it.

“But I do cry more of­ten now at the re­al­ity of lan­guage dy­ing and the rapid rate at which it is dy­ing.”

The way Brack­nell sees it, the Noon­gar lan­guage’s best chance may not be so much stay­ing alive as be­ing pre­served.

That’s where He­cate, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween Yirra Yaakin and the Bell Shake­speare com­pany, comes in. Mar­ry­ing the Noon­gar lan­guage with Shake­speare was the vi­sion of Yirra Yaakin’s for­mer artis­tic di­rec­tor, Kyle Mor­ri­son, who wanted to create a port­fo­lio of Noon­gar lan­guage works that could be per­formed into the fu­ture in much the same way Shake­speare’s back cat­a­logue still gets a good work­out 400 years af­ter his death.

“We could have a port­fo­lio in Noon­gar which would save our lan­guage the way that Shake­spearean lan­guage has been saved,” Brack­nell says. “Some­thing be­ing pre­served doesn’t mean it’s still alive. The minute your lan­guage is no longer am­pli­fied by your peo­ple it dies.”

If the Noon­gar lan­guage is doomed to die, the pres­sure to per­fect any ad­di­tion to that port­fo­lio must be con­sid­er­able. How does she man­age it?

“I’m still adapt­ing even now,” Brack­nell says. “So it is quite daunt­ing. What does daunt­ing mean in English?” She whips out her mo­bile and starts thumb­ing the screen, talk­ing all the time.

“I’m go­ing to look up what daunt­ing means, this is what I do a lot. I’m reading a Shake­spearean text, then I go to a mod­ern text of Shake­speare, then I look up ev­ery­thing and def­i­ni­tions so that I feel within my­self that I’ve given the best in­ter­pre­tive trans­la­tion in the present, now. I think in five or 10 years I would in­ter­pret it dif­fer­ently. That’s the beauty of when these things are writ­ten or in­ter­pre­tively trans­lated: it’s of that pe­riod, it’s of that time.”

She is con­fi­dent au­di­ences who do not un­der­stand a word of Noon­gar will get it.

“If peo­ple can play cha­rades and guess some­thing from that surely they can be a part of an au­di­ence . . . and feel safe in a space where they can watch and fol­low and lis­ten to the tone, watch the re­ac­tions and fol­low a story,” she says. “We do it with new­born ba­bies. They don’t speak for the first how­ever-many months of their life so we have to watch them and un­der­stand their body lan­guage and their move­ments and when they cry.

“Hu­mankind has for­got­ten that our first lan­guage is body lan­guage.”

I do cry more of­ten now at the re­al­ity of lan­guage dy­ing. KYLIE BRACK­NELL

Left: Brack­nell with the He­cate cast. Pic­tures: Sally Flegg Pho­tog­ra­phy

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