Roslyn Packer Theatre, January 11
Forty years later its seems obvious that an Aboriginal rock band would sing in a language other than English. Back then it was revolutionary. It stopped you dead with your beer midway to your mouth. Anyone who saw Warumpi Band live will remember the impact of their raw musical energy combined with George Burarrwanga’s singing in Luritja. Then there were the songs, and that’s what this show, a musical tracing the band’s history, reminds you of more than anything: the sheer power of the likes of Blackfella/Whitefella and My Island Home.
Hailing from Papunya in the Northern Territory, the band was formed by guitarist Sammy Butcher, his brothers and Victorian guitarist Neil Murray. But as Sammy (Baykali Ganambarr) says, it was when they were joined by George (from Elcho Island) that “we had our band”. In Googoorewon Knox the show has a performer capable of catching George’s excitement.
Big Name, No Blankets (also the title of the first Warumpi album) was written by Andrea James and directed by Rachael Maza and Anyupa Butcher, with Sammy Butcher a consultant throughout the show’s development. His involvement certainly lends a veracity, but this has come at the expense of creating a work of drama. Often it feels more like the theatre equivalent of a dramatised documentary (studded with songs), rather than a musical or play with a compelling narrative arc.
It has moments of undeniable charm, as when the Butcher boys first meet Murray (who has a guitar, an amp and a car), and it’ss blessed with several spikes of humour, as when the band tours England for the first time, and Sammy says, “I can’t believe that tiny little country been bossing us around!”
Once we reach the point where the band is touring relentlessly, first one member and then another misses home and family, although these tensions are not made real to us as conflicts of consequence: there’s a brief argument, and then someone leaves. Similarly there’s a hint of friction between Murray (Jackson Peele) and drummer Gordon Butcher (Teangi Knox) about the latter’s playing, but this isn’t explained or expanded upon beyond a brief tiff. Even news of the death of the Butcher brothers’ mother is oddly unaffecting: another dot on a timeline, rather than an emotional king-hit.
It’s as though there’s been such – entirely understandable – reverence for Sammy Butcher that James has been unable to leave behind her concerns with authenticity, or with what Butcher would recognise, in the greater cause of creating a theatrical work. This could have leaned on Warumpi band’s history, but been prepared to diverge from it or focus on a narrower timeframe in the interests of simply telling a story.
Ganambarr plays Sammy with great dignity, and the character and script are their best when he delivers the coda, which says, in part: “We weren’t looking for a hit. We just play music… Listen to the wind. Let the country talk to us… It wasn’t about the fame. It was about the responsibility to your people… Give the young ones something to look up to…”
The cast is completed by Aaron McGrath, Cassandra Williams and Tibian Wyles, and the convincing backing band, led by guitarist Gary Watling, includes two younger Butchers, Jason and Jeremiah.
The project, here having its world premiere, was assembled by Ilbijerri Theatre Company. Were they prepared to go back and interrogate their own work, thicken the characters and enrich the story, it would certainly deserve another life.