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
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.
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