Theatre: Windmill & Big h’Art’s ‘Nyuntu Ngali’ in review

I’ve always felt that politics and theatre have fantastic potential to create dynamic and enlightening human experiences together. Striking the right balance when designing a production with a multimedia approach and multiple agendas is fraught with danger though, as Windmill‘s latest production, Nyuntu Ngali reminded me last night.

Written and directed by Scott Rankin of Big h’Art, the play presents itself as a post-apocalyptic love story. The central struggle of the two young leads to survive as fugitives in the Pitjantjatjara desert is frequently disturbed by the piece’s polemic, didactic political statements. While Roam and Eve’s choreographed movement is expressive in an abstract way, their characters’ underdeveloped lives and personalities make empathising with them difficult. This leaves the gate open for the soap-box politics to resound, despite the best efforts of the multi-disciplinary ensemble.

Driven from her community for breaking blood-related laws of union, Eve (Anne Golding) begins her journey as a teenager in the late stages of pregnancy. On the run with Roam (Derek Lynch), the two are confronted by a mortifying prospect: to abandon their child to save themselves, or to turn their backs on their community forever and face the future as three.

Nyuntu Ngali - Roam & Eve entangled in a lovers knot (photo by missometimes)
Nyuntu Ngali - Roam & Eve entangled in a lovers' knot (photo by missometimes)

From her initial impulse to abandon her child, Eve’s character proves difficult to like. She struggles from adolescence into motherhood, while Roam struggles to develop as provider for his new family. Both neglected their elders’ teaching, and the cautionary note here is clear. Their scenario stands as a warning to all of us to reconsider the knowledge that is the most valuable to us. Rankin’s insight into the value of traditional practise, the way of the hunter-gatherer versus that of a society ‘techno mad’ is pertinent, and well-expressed. Employing a gentle combination of human movement and projected video, traditional Pitjantjatjara skills were depicted as fragile, distant memories. Unfortunatley Rankin’s messages were not always expressed with such a sensitive, soft-handed approach.

Using the familiar technique of taking the audience to the future to reflect on the present, Nyuntu Ngali’s setting is a post climate-change world, where the cities are barren and the well-springs of life are now found in the waterholes of the desert country. To the story’s detriment, Rankin’s agenda to criticise and agitate smothers the lovers’ tale progressively as the play unfolds. The powerfully portrayed narrator’s (Trevor Jamieson) voice becomes the dominant one, mocking the habits of youth enveloped in popular culture. The delusional fantasies expressed in the lyrics and sentiments of commercial music are satirised by the whole cast in a jarring musical-dance montage, while our petro-philia- from the love of the cars to derivative petro-chemical products is detailed explicitly by Jamieson on several occasions. A sequence where actors shadow dance to an R’n’B track labours its point, and was almost as painful and heavy-handed as the young leads’ decision to call their child ‘Petrol Head’.

From the naming of their child, (and the frequent repetition of it) the lovers are reduced to becoming props for Rankin’s political projection. While I personally agree with the director’s central argument, that the ‘just do it’ culture of oil-worship is steering us towards apocalypse, the means in which the message is delivered hampers its effect. The story’s tone is inescapably bleak, and such a course threatens to paralyse its already leftward-leaning middle-class, theatre-going audiences and inspire little action.

Nyuntu Ngali - The full set in action (photo by misssometimes)
Nyuntu Ngali - The full set in action (photo by misssometimes)

Accompanying the lovers verbal and physical narrative were several multimedia elements. While the performed music of Beth Sometimes frequently sapped energy from the performances with its slow tempo and laconic style, the projected live sand-painting of an uncredited indigenous performer was consistently beautiful. Attention was never actively drawn to this element though, while neighbouring video art, mostly unremarkable, was projected on a much grander scale. Cryptic unfolding hinged boxes provided the actors with versatile, collapsible and at times symbolic props, but also created another disparate element in an already dysfunctional world.

While the production design was warm and gentle in general, this rubbed firmly up against the prevailing themes, actions and tone of the central story. I wanted to empathise with Eve and Roam but struggled to connect with the undernourished characters, and was denied any skerrick of hope for humanity at the play’s end. Perhaps ramping up the experience’s intensity to provide the dynamic thrust of a purgative, cathartic experience would have resolved this story more effectively? Despite its good intentions and performances, Nyuntu Ngali left me out in the cold.

Dan Monceaux

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