FreeShall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Noonadar kwop wa djoorap kedela;
In Sonnet 18, two of the most recognisable poetic lines in English speak just as sweetly in Noongar, a language already rich in subtlety and sophistication millennia before Shakespeare weaved his magic in Elizabethan English.
Perth's Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company achieved a world first when it performed six of Shakespeare's sonnets in Noongar at the historic Globe theatre in London last year during the cultural festival for the 2012 Olympics.
It was the first time Aboriginal actors had performed on the historic Globe stage and the first time Shakespeare's work had been translated into Noongar.
Now the company is set to usher in the Festival at dusk on the shores of Matilda Bay for Beginnings, an opening event at which indigenous troubadour Archie Roach will be joined by Noongar singers to share songs in celebration of our place in the world. Afterwards, audiences can stroll across the road to the University of WA to trip the light fantastic at its 100th birthday party as the campus is transformed into a walk-through outdoor gallery and performance space for LUMINOUSnight.
As gratifying as it was for Yirra Yaakin artistic director Kyle Morrison to present six sonnets at the Globe with actor Trevor Ryan and translator/actor Kylie Farmer (Kaarljilba Kaardn), nothing compared with the reception they received at a preview for a group of elders in Perth before departing for London last April.
Among them was Morrison's grandmother.
"She hadn't really heard any member of her family speaking fluent Noongar since she was two or three years old," Morrison says. "It's been 80 years. Seeing her reaction to that, I nearly stuffed up my lines because I saw tears on my grandmother's face. Seeing that true recognition of the language and the pride and the ownership of what we were saying was all the gratification I could want.
"We could have gone to London and said whatever we wanted and they would have said 'Oh very beautiful'. But when we are at home and saying it to our elders that is a whole different thing. We are playing with a whole level of magic that is inherent in language in this country."
Most of the translation was done by Farmer, a Shakespearean actor with a strong understanding of poetry, the classic texts and Noongar cultural knowledge and language, working with Noongar elder and consultant Roma Winmar.
Morrison says the sonnets, written well before European settlement of Australia, still speak loudly to the situation of the Aboriginal community. "In their essence, the sonnets are about love and longing. In our context they could be longing for equality, freedom and the spirit of the country," he says.
"The spiritual world, and land and people are all one and connected with language and thought so when the language is missing from the people there is a sickness there. By reinvigorating and representing the language you start to get some spiritual health back into the culture."
In choosing six of the 157 extant sonnets, Yirra Yaakin was governed by subject matter and the capacity to find ready translations.
"Anything with a sword, horse and cart or a lion, we don't have Noongar definitions for those so the first cull was very simple and practical," Morrison says.
That eliminated about half of them. "Then we focused on the ones with really good elemental stuff about earth, wind, fire, water, thought and desire and passion - ones that really got spiritual and metaphoric."
They also translated two of the 28 Dark Lady sonnets, including Sonnet 127 which begins:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty's name;
But now is black beauty's successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame
Morrison says that resonated with him because of racist attitudes towards women such as his grandmothers and great-aunties through the 1940s to the 1980s. "That was the passion behind that, to talk of the beauty of the black woman through our language and through a prior acknowledgment of black beauty."
Morrison wants to see Noongar performed on a bigger scale and is also looking to translate and create more Shakespearean productions as Yirra Yaakin goes from strength to strength under his leadership.
The company has forged a three-year deal with the WA Museum to take up residency there to perform the sonnets and other works to give museum visitors a deeper appreciation of Aboriginal culture. Energised by the success of the David Milroy musical Waltzing the Wilarra at the 2011 Festival, Yirra Yaakin is also working on its first national co-production with Sydney's Belvoir St Theatre."I really want to give more opportunities to have more WA voices telling our stories nationally," Morrison says.
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