The Arts

Tracking an Untamed Man of Mystery

When David Gulpilil was a small boy he looked up into the sky and saw a plane coming in to land. From the cockpit stepped a ghost. Gulpilil fled into the bush and hid. He had just seen a white person for the first time. Anthropologists and the history books have a quaint label for Gulpilil’s kind: a “first-contact Aborigine,” they call him in their wisdom.

This “first-contact Aborigine” of the Yolngu people was born under a tree beside the nests of crocodiles in his father’s land, Gulpulul. He went on to become, through his acclaimed performances in film [Walkabout, The Last Wave, Rabbit-Proof Fence] the iconic, mysterious “black face of Australia.”

He was to meet the queen, he was to be there on a roof in London watching the Beatles filming and recording, he was to go stir-crazy with a mad Dennis Hopper, he was to dine with Anthony Quinn, he was to wear a tuxedo and mingle with the rich and famous in Cannes, London, Los Angeles, and New York, and eventually he was to be awarded the Order of Australia for his services to the arts.

He was also to live his life in a corrugated-iron humpy [traditional hut] outside the isolated community of Ramingining in Arnhem Land near the great Arafura Swamp, feed his family on bush tucker caught with his own hands, and spend his days and nights fulfilling the ceremonial obligations of a Yolngu elder. English is his sixth, perhaps seventh language—“I speak 14 languages,” says Gulpilil—learned on the hop in 30 years of film shoots and interviews around the world; his father’s language is Mandhalpingu, his mother tongue is Ganalbingu, but he dreams in Yolngu, his skin language. His Mother Dreaming is the crocodile.

How to tell this story of Gulpilil? It has mythic dimensions and a melodramatic theatricality. The threat of tragedy lurks there on its surreal horizons, like a muted rumbling of clouds in the distance. Could it be told in the theater? Nearly two years ago, the artistic director of this year’s Adelaide Festival of Arts, Stephen Page, was convinced it could be—and that it was time it was. “I would look at David on the screen in all those films, that persona, that sheer charisma that dominates with very little use of the spoken word, and I would be stimulated in a way that I could not quite get hold of. I thought about this strange, Hollywood kind of world in which he lived in one part of his life, and the cultural responsibilities of the world in which he lived back home, and in that sort of mysterious, powerful stillness on the screen I would see the struggles of the two worlds in him...and I thought that this would be ideal material for the stage.”

He also knew Gulpilil was ready to do it. After seeing Tom Burlinson perform his one-man show on Frank Sinatra, an inspired Gulpilil had been heard to comment, “I would like to do a one-man show like that one day. I would like to tell my story.” Page decided that Gulpilil’s story would be part of his 2004 Adelaide Festival. He approached director Neil Armfield, with his long tradition of working with indigenous actors and writers, and playwright Reg Cribb, who, in Page’s words, “has this wonderful poetic feeling” in his writing. Armfield and Cribb each grasped the Gulpilil project with both hands—Armfield so much so that he also programmed the show into this year’s Belvoir St. Theatre season.

Both men then traveled up to Ramingining to spend some time with Gulpilil in his own surroundings and on his own terms. Cribb took copious notes and photographs, documenting as much as he could Gulpilil’s daily life, recording the stories in Gulpilil’s own words, his songs and dances, accompanying him on his crocodile hunts and food-gathering missions. “I was a whitefella going into traditional territory,” says Cribb, “so I had to maneuver around the experience a bit. Sometimes he was not ready to talk, I could not push him, I had to respect that. The shock of it all for me was very real, the way of the traditional, rural life. You can never really prepare yourself, how hard and physical his life really is. He hunts crocodile to feed his family, with a stringybark harpoon and a pistol. Sometimes it was necessary to walk 18 hours to get home.” Cribb returned with his notes and began to shape them into a loose working script. “He is a man caught between two worlds, that’s really what it is all about.”

When a working script was ready, and with the Adelaide Festival looming, Gulpilil joined his collaborators in Sydney for rehearsals. It was then that Armfield realized he was involved in something a little different and more complex than he had first imagined. “It was a very unusual way for me to work, how we were attempting to create this show,” he says. “First of all, the process of it: There was a juggling between wanting David to improvise, and David wanting to learn the script like he would his lines in a film script. I said to him, ‘David, we have to have your words.’

“Then,” says Armfield, “there is David’s fantastic impulse to improvise. He can follow a text, but English is not his first language. It is extremely difficult for him....Yet he is supposed to be telling his story in his words.” Armfield felt the best way through would be to keep the script flexible, leaving room for Gulpilil to play with his material, but stable enough for him to fall back on when the demands of the stage made it necessary.

“Then there is his problem of being in whitefella territory, away from his land,” says Armfield. “When he is away from his country, he is unstable. The connection is religious for him. The land is not just territory, it is his self. When you are off your land, you are no longer yourself.”  This has always unsettled Gulpilil, and the stories of his sudden “walkabouts,” binges, and instability when away from his traditional country are legendary. Yet this is part of Gulpilil’s story, too, creating a certain aura of danger around him.

Armfield now says: “There is a mystery at the center of Gulpilil. The mystery is connected right through to the core of his being. On film, the reason he is so fantastic is that he makes that mystery visible, without revealing what it is. But it is there, you can see it, and it is mesmerizing.”

Now all is almost ready. On Thursday in Adelaide, Gulpilil will step onto the stage and perform Gulpilil. Such is the man and his art, he will no doubt
make the mystery visible again and leave only mystery in his wake. Gulpilil has its world premiere on Thursday in Adelaide. Company B presents the work in Sydney from Oct. 7.