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.

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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!

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