When Kylie Bracknell first proposed performing Macbeth in her native Noongar language, she received backlash – not from white Australians but her own people.
“We’ve received quite a lot of ridicule for it from our own community: ‘Why would you want to do a dead white man’s story?’” says Bracknell. “My response is: because he is a human being and found a beautiful, melodic way to tell a story. And that is something that Noongar people have had a grasp on before time began.”
Or, to put it another way, “Shakespeare is one of the most revered playwrights of all time, so why not?”
On Sunday, Hecate premiered at the Perth festival to a standing ovation. The production, by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company presented in association with Bell Shakespeare, was done entirely in Noongar by a cast of Noongar actors, making it the first of its kind in the world.
And while Hecate is based on Macbeth, Bracknell has done what she calls an “interpretative” translation – bringing the goddess of witchcraft Hecate, a minor character usually omitted from performances of the play, to the forefront.
I meet Bracknell at the Subiaco Arts Centre alongside Kyle J Morrison, former artistic director of Yirra Yaakin, whose initial idea it was to translate Shakespeare into Noongar and who performs the role of Lennox in the play.
Hecate follows in the footsteps of a worldwide trend to translate, and thus subvert, classic texts into different languages, often changing English – which, in the centuries since Shakespeare, has become the language of colonisation and globalisation – into that of the colonised and the marginalised.
In the mid 2000s, British director Tim Supple created an acclaimed Indian Midsummer’s Night Dream, performed in English, but also in seven other languages, including Sanskrit, Tamil and Hindi. In 2007, Perth festival presented the same play in Korean. In 2018, a Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof took New York by storm: famous spectators included Billy Crystal, Bette Midler, Hilary Clinton and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
A major difference between Hecate and these productions, however, is the decision in the former not to include any English or surtitles.
“I wanted [the audience] to connect with all the facets of language,” says Bracknell, 39, who has spent two years translating Macbeth alongside her husband, Wirlomin Noongar musician Clint Bracknell.
“Why must we have surtitles to things that should be obvious to humankind? The emotions of human beings: The tone of their voice, the quiver, the positioning or the body language … it’s these further perfections and imperfections to human beings that we miss on so many levels.”
Morrison, 37, taut and lanky and dressed in a black singlet with chunky glasses and no shoes, is all smiles and laughs. Bracknell is the opposite: a thinker who is not afraid of long silences, pausing the conversation to ponder, as she slowly and deliberately dips her Dilmah teabag into her mug. She is also fierce. When Morrison admits he is losing his voice, she orders: “Don’t talk unless you’re answering a question.” He slaps a palm over his mouth, crosses his hands in faux sulkiness, and sticks out his tongue.
Bracknell’s relationship with the audience can veer into the combative, too. She complains that one viewer in a preview session spent the entire play trying to read his synopsis. Earlier this year, she told SBS: “I’m not gonna sell this show, if people don’t realise how much of a historic event or how important it’s going to be, if people don’t want to be in the audience for the first-ever all Noongar 90-minute theatre production ever, that’s on them not on me.”
But maybe such pugnacious antagonism is what it takes to try and do something new – and to claw back a language that today, as a direct result of commonwealth suppression of Aboriginal culture and heritage, is endangered.
Bracknell wants to honour and revere the ancient language of Noongar, letting its beauty speak for itself and its rhythms wash over the theatregoers, without distraction.
But there are political reasons, too.
English has done more to keep us in a psychological prison than those prisons out there have done
“Imagine being in a foreign land, where you don’t know the language and you haven’t had a chance to learn to learn the language. Now keep all the language points and suddenly place yourself in your own land,” she tells me, forcibly. She adds, with an acid laugh: “So if our people can teach a foreign language to us in our own country, surely the people that took over this space and claimed this space can use all of their ‘brilliant intelligence’ that they brought with them [to watch a play].”
Morrison hopes that when Shakespeare aligns with Noongar “we can make magic and new culture” – a goal he also strove for in 2012 when he directed Shakespearean sonnets in the Noongar language at London’s Globe theatre.
Shakespeare existed pre-British empire, says Morrison: “Before England went and colonised the world, Shakespeare was for the people. One of the beautiful things that we are looking to do is to decolonise and give it back to the people.”
Yet his ties to English are complex. “English has done more to keep us in a psychological prison than those prisons out there have done,” says Morrison, gesticulating with both hands to the world beyond the arts centre, listing terms such as “pagan”, “uncivilised” and “hunter-gatherer” as problematic.
By contrast, performing in Noongar, which Morrison learnt for the production, has created “a deep-seated contentment in my guts that nothing in the world has ever provided. It’s almost like 1.5-hour prayer for me.”
Like Morrison, most of the actors in Hecate have had to either learn Noongar from scratch or build on patchy vocabulary. To try and speed up their fluency, Bracknell directed the rehearsals in Noongar too.
Such tenacity did not go unnoticed on opening night. “It was awesome. You never have a play like that in language,” said Noongar-Wongi woman Cherie Yorkshire, 42, whose son was performing. Her father, Warren Yorkshire, 64, who speaks Noongar and translated for Cherie throughout the play, added: “We should be embracing this. It tells the young people in the community that they have got lingo and they can use it.”
It is 5pm and Bracknell makes her excuses – she wants to spend time with her 23-month-old son before the preview begins, again, that night. As I walk down the steps a few minutes later, I see her crouching down with him in the theatre foyer as he babbles away excitedly. He is talking in Noongar.
• Guardian Australia was a guest of Perth festival