By Caitlin McGrane
Uncle Jack Charles has a long and illustrious artistic career behind him; from co-founding the first Indigenous theatre company Nindethana to Hollywood’s hallowed halls, Uncle Jack Charles has carefully crafted his presence in both the international and Australian arts scenes. Jack Charles has also faced a long history of abuse, frustration and rejection through the Australian judicial system. A member of the Stolen Generation, Charles’ story of addiction, arrest and prosecution was documented beautifully and poignantly in the documentary Bastardy.
Jack Charles v The Crown seems to me an attempt to address some of the issues in the 2008 doco by retracing Charles’ life from his beginnings at the Royal Women’s Hospital to 2016 in the Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio. Charles is alone throughout the performance, joined by only the band to provide beautiful musical accompaniment along the way. Co-written by Jack Charles and John Romeril (who also served as Dramaturg), Jack Charles v The Crown is a poignant reminder of how far Australia still has to go in addressing its appalling treatment of Indigenous peoples.
The play opens with scenes from Bastardy of Charles injecting himself with heroin, current Charles meanwhile works blissfully away on a pottery wheel on stage, delicately moulding the clay. The audience is simultaneously introduced to Charles’ charge sheets from 2004 when he was arrested on several counts of burglary. It sounds rough but the production is created carefully and unflinchingly, so what could be interpreted as painful is actually full of pathos and humour.
Director Rachael Maza has masterfully constructed this production, weaving together documentary footage, photographs and charge sheets together with Uncle Jack Charles’ unmistakeable gleeful cheek to create something much greater than the sum of its parts. This production is a story of redemption and coming to terms with the past: the way Charles tells his story means one moment you feel utterly heartbroken, yet a few moments later he has you giggling and guffawing at some innuendo.
The musical score composed by Nigel MacLean kept the pace of the production and added depth to Charles’ monologues. These musical interludes and accompaniments were performed by Gary Dryza, Mal Beveridge and Phil Collings, and occasionally Uncle Jack Charles; who knew he had such a set of lungs on him? The set and costumes (Emily Barrie) were carefully designed to keep the sense of intimacy as Charles moved around the stage making pottery and a cuppa. Lighting (Danny Pettingill) and audio visual design (Peter Worland) supported the performance, and gently overlaid the mood on stage.
I loved everything about this performance, and I honestly can’t recommend it highly enough. I feel very privileged to see a part of Uncle Jack Charles’s story, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Jack Charles v The Crown is now showing at The Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio until 20 November – make sure you get in quick. Tickets and more info: Arts Centre Melbourne
Image by Bindi Cole