He may be diminutive in size but he towers in stature. His legend is known worldwide but he is a local Melbourne man. His voice is rich and calloused, bearing testament to the artistic excellence and grace of a man who loves to tell a tale. But this one is real — it is his own.
In ‘Jack Charles v The Crown‘, playing at Arts Centre Melbourne, Uncle Jack Charles quotes Shakespeare’s King Lear because he, too, is an elder — of theatre and of our community. He is also a survivor of the legacy of colonial actions against the first peoples of this country. He has earned the right to tell his story and have it trumpeted.
It’s about the settling of scores and cleansing of records. Literally.
Much like the 2009 documentary of his life, Bastardy, this play recounts both his back story and pilgrimage to Canberra to have his criminal record expunged.
The play speaks honestly about Charles’s corruptions and vices. It touches on his childhood as an orphan raised in public care, to his criminal history, 22 years of incarceration, and long-term drug addiction. He recounts growing up in the Salvation Army Home for Boys, not knowing how many siblings he had, let alone who his mother was.
A natural performer and larrikin, Charles has a talent for showmanship. He found an alternate brotherhood in theatre. A key figure in the theatrical scene of the 1960s and 1970s, Charles was a co-founder of the Indigenous theatre company Ilbijerri. The award-winning actor featured in numerous films and television shows.
Three musicians play live on stage to support this master orator and accomplished singer. The set recreates his beloved pottery studio in Castlemaine Prison, the site of solace throughout many of his terms of imprisonment. There is a down-home authenticity to him. It’s this frank and honest mien he takes to the High Court late in life to have the marks of colonialism removed from his story.
This play is chock full of one-liners, quotes, and ironic puns. It’s a storytellers’ delight! Charles’s life is rich material. The sadnesses, the high and the lows, and incursions in and out of legal record, make for great theatre.
More than that, they tell us of a great man, who, despite all his setbacks, still speaks of his life as mirror of the cause of his people and dispossessions, for which the nation bears no charge. He has the last word.
Jack Charles lives on stage and in our minds as a champion.
Sarah W. is a dance-trained theatre lover with a flair for the bold, and non-traditional performance platforms. On-the-street or in the box seat, she is always looking for quality works that push the envelope.