Namatjira might just be as significant a bridge between blackfella and whitefella as the now-fading memory of the march across the coathanger, or even the apology. It mightn’t have the mass profile, but it has all the ingredients for exemplifying what can be achieved, given a little leeway on both sides.

That Aboriginal people are still prepared to cut us any slack, let alone the generous amount they do, after the sheer cruelty we’ve perpetrated against the likes of one of the country’s greatest artists, is breathtaking testimony to their equanimity and biblical capacity for forgiveness. What makes such forgiveness possible, I suppose, are individuals of the ilk of Reginald (”Rex”) Batterbee, an incapacitated digger who taught Albert how to see with European eyes, to augment his own vision of country.

The man we know as Namatjira wasn’t named Namatjira at all; rather, this was the best approximation of his father’s name the German pastor at Hermannsburg Lutheran mission could muster. Nor was he Albert; rather, this was the familiar appellation imposed on him by same. He was Elea, a Western Aranda man, here played, somewhat incongruously, but oh-so-successfully by Pitjantjatjara man Trevor Jamieson. He is an archetypally well-rounded actor: narrator; player of numerous key characters (including Battarbee, the pastor and Namatjira senior); dancer; singer; mime. In none of these does he lack: he’s at all times charismatic and never have I seen anyone play both sides of a conversation so convincingly and unflinchingly.

Jamieson looks especially good thanks in no small measure to creator, writer and co-director (with the omnipotent Wayne Blair) Scott Rankin, who’s written a piece that is sympathetic, insightful, meditative, warmly comical and incisive, without ever being prickly or offensive, given Jamieson’s ability to soften the written blows with the utmost charm. Jamieson’s highly talented sidekick is Derek Lynch, who matches the first in physical performance skills and is a riot in drag, a petal on his mettle, not least as QE2, Namatjira’s sweetheart, Robina, and a social butterfly.

Namatjira is a gentle story of a gentle man, much abused. Like the man’s eventful, all-too-short life, it’s full of surprises (there’s even a cameo role for Barry White and The Unlimited Love Orchestra, as Albert woos Robina), albeit gentler ones than many to which Albert found himself subjected.

This work reminds us of all that theatre can be; of its broad church. It reminds us, too, that theatre can be and inspire deep feeling, in a subtle, rather than boldly visceral way. Perhaps most importantly of all, it tells one man’s too-little-told story, one emblematic of the story of this continent, over the past 200 years or so.

The details: Namatjira plays the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir Street in Sydney until November 7. Tickets on the Belvoir website.

Peter Fray

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