Hipbone a theatre milestone

Hipbone Sticking Out. Picture: Chris Gosfield


Hipbone Sticking Out

By Scott Rankin

5 stars

Big hART

Heath Ledger Theatre


A while back, reviewing The TEAM's thrilling Mission Drift at the Perth Festival, I said: "It has everything theatre should have, and does everything I believe theatre should do."

So here goes. To paraphrase the title of one of the songs adapted for Big hART's extraordinary Hipbone Sticking Out: Oops, I'm saying it again.

The similarity between these two prodigious shows runs deep; both take in an enormous sweep of history, both have a glorious theatrical abandon, and both confront you with a particular tragedy set in a wide, elemental context.

In Hipbone Sticking Out (the title is the English translation of Murujuga, the Ngayarda languages' name for the Burrup Peninsula) that tragedy is the lonely death, in September 1983, of 16-year-old John Pat (the lithe, affecting Nelson Coppin) in the Roebourne lockup after an altercation with police.

Pat's story, and its legal and political aftermath, is well known, although part of the importance of the play is helping ensure it is not forgotten. The play has other, greater, ambitions than that documentary function, although it doesn't flinch from it.

Hipbone Sticking Out attempts nothing less than the story of the collision of cultures over centuries - millennia - and it succeeds with dizzying brilliance. When John Pat's spirit (Trevor Jamieson, giving a career-defining performance) chides the Greek god Pluto (Lex Marinos, in the role he was born to play) with "we were racist 40,000 years before you were a race", the joke works on a mind-boggling number of levels, not all of them the least bit funny.

The play's provenance, the role Big hART is playing in the renaissance of an often troubled Pilbara town, the fact that many of its cast members are from the Roebourne community, including members of Pat's own family, makes this production more impressive, but doesn't compromise its quality as a theatrical experience one iota.

Nothing can prepare you for what you see and hear when you enter the theatre. On a massive scrim is Brueghel's Orpheus in the Underworld. Children scamper up to audience members while Marinos spruiks: "Get a selfie with a black kid! All of them descended from Albert Namatjira and Cathy Freeman!"

The cast and a vocal quartet, led by the musical director Nate Gilkes, sing an ancient Greek hymn to Pluto (later, we'll hear Bach's St Mathew's Passion, Gilbert and Sullivan, Smetana, sea shanties, African-American spirituals, show tunes and pop hits - yes, even Britney Spears - many translated into Aboriginal languages).

Pluto is there to welcome the dying John Pat into the Underworld (Pat is both Coppin and Jamieson, the real boy and the man he never had the chance to become). Their interplay drives a hallucinatory narrative that races across centuries, from the deep past to wealthy, mercantile Amsterdam, from grim, genocidal manhunts in 1868 to the uneasy concessions of claim and benefit between the economically powerful and the dispossessed today.

Whole stories are told in inspired instants; a well-meaning settler's wife (Sheridan Harbridge) sneezes as she hands over blankets to an Aboriginal family; the arriving Europeans' ships look like moths flitting over the water to those watching from the shore. Back in Amsterdam, the vanity of a pampered daughter (Shareena Clanton, who also plays Pat's mother Mavis in a versatile performance of the highest quality) sends Aboriginal pearl divers down to their deaths off the WA coast.

The "imported" cast are uniformly excellent, and those from the Roebourne community are a revelation. The sets, costumes, sound and visual effects are stunning, the technical production faultless.

Hipbone Sticking Out's writer and director Scott Rankin has my profound admiration. His imagination, and the cultural literacy he brings to the telling of this story, is extraordinary, and his ability to bring people with hugely different life experiences together for a common purpose is self-evident.

I can't begin to describe all the elements, from grand opera to pantomime, verbatim theatre to burlesque, he dovetails seamlessly here; I only hope you get the chance to discover them for yourself. I also admire Rankin's discipline to know that, after the giddy delights he gives us, we must finally pause to lament John Pat's death together, and we must hear what the people of Roebourne want to tell us.

Because it's important to heed John Pat when he tells us "this is your story, not ours". It's about who did the doing every bit as much, more, than it is about who it was done to.

That's a mighty message to take away from a mighty show that will become a milestone in Australian theatre.

Hipbone Sticking Out ends on Saturday.