Of all the ways to keep alive an ancient language, only spoken by a few hundred people, staging a Shakespearian play is not an obvious one.
- Hecate is the play Macbeth, translated and performed in Noongar language
- The adaptation is one of several efforts sparking a “renaissance” of the language
- Many of the Aboriginal actors had to learn the language almost from scratch
But the timing of a new adaption and translation of Macbeth into Noongar by WA-born director Kylie Bracknell is sparking talk of a “renaissance” of the endangered WA Indigenous language.
The play, called Hecate and produced by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company with Bell Shakespeare, will be performed by an all-Noongar cast at the Perth Festival next month, with the aim of celebrating the language with Noongar people and promoting it to new audiences.
The language has been spoken by the Noongar people living around Perth and the south-western corner of WA for tens of thousands of years.
Its use dropped away after colonisation, particularly around the time of the Stolen Generations, when speaking Noongar was discouraged and Noongar people became disconnected from their culture.
But in recent years the language has slowly gained more prominence locally, being taught in some schools and included in Welcome to Country acknowledgements before AFL games.
There’s even a Noongarpedia, the first Wikipedia site in an Aboriginal Australian language.
Hecate director Kylie Bracknell said her goal was to celebrate Noongar language. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
The renewed interest in Perth’s first language and culture has led Noongar singer-songwriter Gina Williams to believe we are at a turning point for the language, after years of hard work to keep it alive.
“Right across this nation, I hope that what people see is this extraordinary moment in time and they go, ‘oh yeah, that’s where the renaissance began from this country’,” she said.
Explaining her motivation for taking on the difficult Shakespeare project, Ms Bracknell said she was determined to keep alive her family’s language and an important part of WA culture and history.
“So what we’re doing is we’re trying to hold [on to] something which could be missing forever in a short space of time and simply add to an identity crisis for all of us,” she said.
“Because Australians really need to open their arms and hearts, lift their chins and heads, and say we have such a wonderful history in the people that were here before we arrived.”
Translation took many years
Ms Bracknell’s work in adapting and translating Macbeth came at the prompting of her colleague, former Yirra Yaakin artistic director Kyle Morrison.
It took many years for her and her husband, Clint Bracknell, to translate the play.
When the actors take to the stage there will be no English translations, just “90 minutes of pure Noongar language”, although Ms Bracknell has been amused by those who say Noongar is just as foreign a language as Shakespearian English.
“Don’t just expect the verbal, expect the whole Noongar language — the body language, the emotion, the way we share words,” she said.
The actors themselves had to learn Noongar to perform the play.
“What people don’t realise is that these actors are having to learn a language they don’t know,” she said.
“They have to learn their language to know their character, to then share it.
“They have to overcome a lot of the emotion that is bestowed upon them from generations of disconnect from their own language, their own mother tongue.”
Noongar language ‘getting stronger’
Noongar linguist Denise Smith-Ali is one of a handful of indigenous linguists around Australia working to keep Aboriginal languages alive.
She said she was confident Noongar would now not become extinct as a language.
“It’s becoming more alive, it’s getting stronger,” she said.
Over the past two decades, she has worked to preserve the language in its early and modern forms, including the Aboriginal English — a mash-up of Noongar and English words commonly spoken today.
“We’ve made dictionaries, a holistic dictionary of Noongar nations, then the three dialects and 14 clans,” she said.
“That’s all pre-dated 1900s and then we’re doing the contemporary dictionary of today.”
Ms Bracknell incorporates all levels of Noongar language, including body language and dialect. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
A co-founder of the Noongar Boodjar Language Centre in Perth’s southern suburbs, she has seen first-hand the revival of the Noongar language after a dark period in history, including a 1905 WA Government Act that led to the Stolen Generations.
“With colonisation and the Stolen Generations, a lot of people were taken away from their families and taken away and put into missions,” she said.
“When they got to that era in the 1905 Act, they were told to not to speak their language.
“They were told not to practice any law, any culture.
“A lot of people who were in these missions who wanted to speak their language, they would go and hide behind trees or hide in cupboards and speak the language with someone else who knew their language.”
As a result, the Noongar language is a sensitive and emotional issue for many people, especially those who were denied a connection to it.
In recognition of this difficult history, Ms Smith-Ali said her centre did not charge Noongar people for language classes.
“We don’t ask Noongar people for a fee because their language was taken from them,” she said.
“They should not have to pay.”
Noongar songs to heal and reconcile
Ms Williams, whose mother and grandmother were from the Stolen Generations, has long promoted the revival of the Noongar language through song, believing it can play an important role in healing and reconciliation.
“It’s about rebuilding songs — we lost songs so we need to start rewriting those songs,” she said.
“It’s not enough for just my community, the Noongar community to be singing in language.
“For our language to really succeed and be safe, we need everybody to do this.”
Musicians Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse have produced an album of Noongar children’s songs. (ABC News: Hugh Sando)
With her musical partner Guy Ghouse, she is about to release and perform an album of children’s songs and lullabies sung in Noongar and English.
She hoped they would be embraced by Indigenous and non-Indigenous families as they sing along in the car or soothe their children to sleep and become part of a shared local identity.
They include her translation of Moon River, a favourite song she used to sing to her children in English.
“Our language, it’s the one thing that separates this place from everywhere else on the planet and I think it’s the most beautiful language on the planet,” she said.
“It lends itself perfectly to music and why wouldn’t you want to hear it, why wouldn’t you want to sing it and why wouldn’t you want to share this with people because it’s really unique?”
Credit: Source link