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Reviews/Perth Festival

Clear intentions

21 February 2019

Perth Festival review: Madeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey, ‘Five Short Blasts’ ·
Derbil Yerrigan (Swan River), 20 February ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

A small flotilla of bright yellow boats bobs along the river, carrying four passengers apiece. It’s 6:15 on a still Wednesday evening and we’re taking part in Five Short Blasts, a place-based work from Melbourne artists Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey.

Five short blasts is the maritime signal for uncertainty – literally, “I do not understand your intention.” It’s a funny title for a work with a very clear intention – to illuminate the beauty and utility of our waterways. In this case, the Derbil Yerrigan (Swan River) is the centrepiece, but this work has been staged in waterways worldwide – in Prague, Hamburg, Brighton and Melbourne. For the Perth Festival variant, it’s a cliff-lined corner of East and North Fremantle that is the focal point, with Freo’s working harbour thrown in for good measure.

Most of us regard Perth’s coastline as its defining geographical glory, but the river that leads to that coast is an underappreciated wonder all its own. Bordered with limestone cliffs and sandy beaches; populated by more birds than humans; our river is often overlooked in favour of its more vivid oceanic cousin. Five Short Blasts gently persuades us of the error of oversight. Weaving together a varied narrative of voices, it’s a compelling aural journey that shares the rich history of this part of our world, while celebrating the social currency of the modern-day river.

Beginning with a brief history of Noongar use of the area, we are taken on an evocative ride into the personal experiences of others when they are in, on or near the river. Aided by local artists Marie Taylor, Cassie Lynch and Bec Reid, community members were asked to contribute their memories or experiences of the river, as was the case for the Festival’s previous oral history works – A Mile in My Shoes (2016) and The Museum of Water (2017). One woman talks about diving for prawns and scallops; another about her childhood experiences of boating; a Noongar elder shares the history of the riverside camps and the importance of campfires; a man talks about fishing; another about working on the boats in the port. The experiences are personal, visceral… we feel as though we’re sharing secrets.

Meanwhile, the four of us are having our own experience of the river. We notice the pelicans, their beaks wriggling with catch; the amber reflection of the sunset over the hills of North Freo; the bump and loll of the waves as other crafts pass; the immensity of the container ships, piled high with their multi-hued cargo; the gasps of delight as the fins of dolphins slice the water right next to our tiny boat.

Children from North Fremantle Primary and Spearwood Alternative School have been recruited to provide additional riverside antics. On this night, this means synchronised bombies off Harvey Beach jetty and some very eager waving. Other “plants” included two trombonists, knee deep in the water; a sketching artist, and a yoga class.

As our little pod made its way back to the East Fremantle beach, we stopped near the modernist fabulousness that is Stirling Bridge for tea and biscuits. Each passenger filled out a manifest with details of the journey and we headed into shore, the sun slipping out of sight. We disembarked, all of us grinning, grateful for the opportunity of seeing our world anew.

Five Short Blasts is sold out! But you can be part of the event by coming down to the riverside in East or North Fremantle at 5am, 7am or 6pm every day until March 2.

Photo: Toni Wilkinson

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Author —
Varnya Bromilow

Varnya Bromilow is a happy dilettante who has worked as a journalist, advocate, oral historian, teacher and train driver. She spent 15 years with the ABC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The West Australian and enjoys writing fiction. She loves guinea pigs and the thrill of a good slide.

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