0121_34_NR_Subs21_SeeSaw_970x90.gif
Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Tales from the riverbank

21 February 2021

Michelle White, a river kid raised in Mandoon (Guildford), says Witness Stand has much to tell us about the Noongar culture of the Derbarl Yerrigan, and she finally discovers why the Devil’s Elbow was out of bounds.

Witness Stand, Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, Barry McGuire, Kylie Bracknell ·
Fishmarket Reserve, Guildford, 19 February, 2021 ·

Ni! Kaartdijn! One of Perth Festival’s big free events, Witness Stand, is an open invitation to ni (listen in Noongar language) and kaartdijin (learn).

In keeping with this year’s Festival theme of bilya – river – Witness Stand takes place at several points along the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River), between Mandoon (Guildford) and Walyalup (Fremantle), and on Wadjemup (Rottnest). Tiered seating and speakers have been set up by the water so the audience can listen to stories about the river. Oral history recordings relay the cultural significance of the locations, interspersed with original compositions by musicians whose cultural backgrounds reflect the diversity of Australia today.

Witness Stand is created by the same artists who made Five Short Blasts, an oral history boat tour and listening experience about the Swan River and Fremantle Port that was part of the 2019 Festival. This time, Madeline Flynn and Tim Humphrey have teamed with Perth Festival’s artistic associate Kylie Bracknell and cultural adviser Barry McGuire to create a Noongar storytelling experience about the river.

Unlike the big free cultural experiences the Festival has offered in previous years, Witness Stand is understated and simple. There are no other production elements on site, just the seating and the speakers. Admittedly, I spent the first part of the production expecting something to happen. When a couple of canoeists drifted past, I wondered if they were a part of the production. Was it a statement about colonisation? Was that huge splash in front of us engineered to simulate throwing sand in the water?

I wasn’t alone: other audience members later said they’d had similar expectations. But we agreed that once we realised it was an audio show only, we were able to settle into a state of contemplation, allowing us to listen to the soundtrack and absorb the site’s natural beauty and ambience. The river was our stage and the birdlife our actors. Ducks drifted by, pink-and-grey galahs and twenty-eights darted between the trees, waterbirds bobbed for fish, and a family of curious magpies spent much of the time centre stage just staring at us, puzzled.

The relative softness of the soundscape projection meant Bracknell’s fluent Noongar and McGuire’s gentle storytelling were punctuated by the noise of passing trains and traffic. We hear about the past with the interruptions of the present.

I experienced Witness Stand at its most upriver installation site, Fishmarket Reserve, a park in Guildford. As a river kid of Yamatji/Aboriginal descent who grew up in Guildford, I was curious to hear about the Noongar history of this place.

My mum called this bend in the river the Devil’s Elbow and we were always warned to never, ever swim there. No one ever explained to me why – it was just warra (bad). Of course, this never stopped my braver cousins from climbing the forbidden pipeline bridge and jumping into the cold river water. Storyteller McGuire not only confessed to the same daredevil antics but also explained the sacredness of this river bend and its connection to the Waugal, the Rainbow Serpent creator. “It’s the old people’s law to never swim there,” he told us. Decades later, I have my answer.

Talking to some of the audience members after the performance, I found that they, too, were locals, hungry to know more about the indigenous culture of the land on which they live. That is the simple strength of this new work.

While it may not have the bells and whistles of other Perth Festival cultural offerings, Witness Stand is an invitation to stop, rest, contemplate and, most crucially, learn about the Noongar history of the land we all share. It’s a gift for all of us who want to ni and kaartdijin.

As Barry McGuire reminds us: “As long as we sit and listen, we will hear the light of the land.”

Witness Stand is on at six riverside locations as well as Rottnest and runs until Sunday, 14 March, 2021.

Pictured top: ‘Witness Stand’ offers audiences a chance to sit by the river and hear stories from its past, and its place in Noongar culture.

Like what you're reading? Support Seesaw.

Author —
Michelle White

Michelle White is a Yamatji storyteller with more than 30 years writing and producing for televison, radio, print and online. She has extensive experience working in the arts and currently serves as Partnerships and Platforming Manager for Community Arts Network. Favourite part of the playground? The flying fox or wherever the food is!

Past Articles

  • Sparks fly over unfinished business

    Watch out for Kalyakoorl Collective, says Michelle White, as she feels the heat in FIRE, its debut work.

  • Freo artist wins NAIDOC prize

    National NAIDOC week kicked off Sunday 8 November so we’re re-sharing Michelle White’s interview with Tyrown Waigana, who designed this year’s NAIDOC Week poster.

Read Next

  • An aerial photo of a crowd of thousands under lights in a park surrounded by high rise buildings Park opera still on song after 30 years
    Reviews

    Park opera still on song after 30 years

    27 February 2021

    The exceptional talents of some of our great opera stars turned Opera in the Park’s 30th anniversary gala into a transcendent experience, Rosalind Appleby discovered.

    Reading time • 5 minutesPerth Festival
  • Jade O'Sullivan & Olive, 'Kaartijin'; 'Land Bridge', framed acrylic on canvas, 950 mm x 950 mm each. Image courtesy of Mayma Awaida. A close up of a detail of Jade O'Sullivan & Olive's 'Kaartijin'. In the background is 'Land Bridge' by the same artists. Both pictures are acrylic paint on canvas, brightly, even garishly coloured. The foregrounded image is an abstract picture of a First Nations woman. Her body is adorned with colourful discs with geometric patterns on them. Next to her is the face of another person, with a face painted in multiple colours. Local artists enjoy the spotlight
    Reviews

    Local artists enjoy the spotlight

    25 February 2021

    Thanks to the pandemic, a broader range of local artists have been given the opportunity to present work at Perth Festival this year, resulting in two interesting and challenging exhibitions, writes Craig McKeough.

    Reading time • 6 minutesPerth Festival
  • Shaping the future from the past
    Reviews

    Shaping the future from the past

    25 February 2021

    Performed by moonlight on the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan, WA Youth Theatre Company’s BESIDE is an unforgettable immersive theatre experience about the past and the future, Claire Trolio writes.

    Reading time • 5 minutesPerth Festival

Leave a comment

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio

Cleaver Street Studio