Jack Charles v The Crown

Jack Charles and John Romeril

Ilbijerri Theatre Company

Barbican, The Pit

From 11 February 2014 to 15 February 2014

Review by Belle Lupton

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The name Jack Charles may not be familiar to a British audience, but his kind of story is.

On the play’s second night Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledges to spend a week in an Outback Aboriginal settlement to show once again his commitment to improving the bleak plight of indigenous people. So far good timing for Australia’s longest-running Aboriginal theatre company.

For the story of Jack Charles v The Crown reflects the stories of so many Aboriginal peoples.

But then Jack Charles has been banging this same drum for more than 40 years. Now 71, the aboriginal actor has brought his story to a new audience on the other side of the world, an audience whose familiarity with his mugshots can’t be taken for granted.

And as a piece of theatre Jack Charles v The Crown actually works better coming to it with no prior knowledge. Gradually piecing together Charles’ past from his eclectic monologue, interspersed as it is with live singing, a three-piece band and a courtroom recreation, is a more engaging exercise than rehearsing newspaper headlines that would be already familiar to an Australian audience.

The opening scene is confronting: Charles shooting up in the video played on the back wall of the set while the band strikes up, haunting, and a dimly-lit figure hunches over a potter’s wheel. The video is clips from Bastardy, the 2008 award-winning documentary by Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Jack Charles; the figure in the foreground is that film’s protagonist, throwing pots as the shadow of his former self dances behind him.

Any fears (justified) that this will be a self-indulgent performance are soon dissolved in the gregarious warmth of the storyteller. Charles’ mellifluous voice and age-defying sprightliness with director Rachael Maza’s easygoing blocking create the air of the campfire – Charles even settles down for a cuppa as he gets into his tale. Bursts of music break up the narrative, with moving performances from Nigel Maclean, Phil Collings and Malcolm Beveridge. The music is as much part of the performance as the projected images and actor, electric violin emitting strains not dissimilar to those of the didgeridoo before breaking into blues when Charles throws on his blue sequined jacket.

Basterdy, also showing at the Barbican, shows the audience what happened to Jack Charles. Jack Charles v The Crown shows the audience what he’d like to happen from now, with only poetic hints at the abuse and sexuality difficulties in his past. The fabricated court appearance, in which Charles puts forward to the audience (his courtroom) the argument that he should be separated from his prisoner number, works as a vehicle for him to talk about the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia without sounding preachy. What he says about “black man justice” (you may get a club to the head but once exile is over you’re fully accepted back into the fold) compared to “white man justice” (you’ll be crippled by your prisoner number long after you’ve finished serving your time) travels beyond its Australian origin.

In the end the credit for this fantastic piece of theatre must go to its performers, for it was a gift to the director and co-writer. The story was already there, already documented, performed by a natural performer. But, as we’re reminded by the macabre sight of Charles standing by own his homemade gravestone, thank goodness they put it onstage before his truth was buried with him.