Robert Reid relishes the chance to finally watch Ilbijerri’s classic, Jack Charles V The Crown
One of the very, very few good things to have come out of lockdown is that a work like Jack Charles V The Crown is available to see again. At the start of this decade I never had the money to pay for shows and I wasn’t reviewing, so I missed a lot of good, important theatre. I always regretted missing out on Jack Charles V The Crown. To finally have the chance to see it, even in the limited capacity of YouTube, is a gift.
The video quality of this recording is not terrific, but it’s not too bad. Its cinematography is a step or two above a fringe show recorded with a camera or two on tripods at the back of the audience. This is no reflection on the work itself: this was recorded for archival purposes, not for broadcast. But it’s worth a heads up so you know what to expect when you watch it. And you really should watch it.
The deep, gravelly and eloquent voice of Jack Charles fills the room with his Acknowledgement of Country. As the performers enter the space, projected video footage of Charles shooting up plays over them. If this documentary is going to be a truthful portrait of his life, he tells us from the screen, it must include everything.
The documentary he’s talking about is Bastardy, a 2009 movie that takes its name from the 1972 play. Written by Charles with John Romeril, it features Charles, then as now, finding his way through his personal history. Jack Charles V The Crown continues this documentary project, again written by Charles with Romeril and directed by Rachael Maza, with Charles now drug-free and reflecting on new information the team have discovered. Romeril told the Sydney Morning Herald at the time that, “The original play was loosely based on what we knew of his story then, but now we know so much more and we’re learning new things all the time. The play keeps being re-written”.
Although this version of the show somewhat skirts his abuse and his sexuality, it doesn’t shy away from them either. Rather, it focuses on Charles’ upbringing, his cycles of drug addiction and incarceration. Jack Charles V The Crown is, in its way, a redemptive work – for Charles as a way to come to terms with his struggles against the systemic racism that inflicted those very struggles upon him. Redemption is a never-ending project, of course, but Charles has made far greater progress than the system has.
A list of charges brought against Charles for theft and burglary during 2004 plays over projections: images of his mug shot, the charge sheet and moments from the documentary blend and fade into each other. The real-life Charles sits on stage in a spotlight, working at a pottery wheel, his untamed mass of white hair and beard glowing in the spotlight. This corner of the set is designed to reflect the pottery shop in Castlemaine prison which Charles ran for five years.
Heavy. hard Australian accents fill the theatre. Blunted and threatening, there’s an assuredness to these official voices that comes from having power and knowing it. These voices are replaced by Charles’ recorded voice reflecting on his experience of prison. “I may be locked up,” his voice tells us from the film. “But I’m free inside.”
Scenes from his considerable screen acting career are intercut with scenes from the doco. Exhaustedly, his recording tells us that he rues the day he began taking heroin and that “real blackfellas don’t shoot white powder”.
Here he begins to speak from the stage. A stronger voice, confident and relaxed, comes from the man at the pottery wheel, describing the flow he gets when working with clay. There’s a subtle shift in poetic gears at this point: a move from the documentary text, with the off-the-cuff looseness of talking in real life, to the heightened sense of constructed dialogue that has been written for the stage.
This moves into a more biographical narrative, recounting Charles’ court cases and prison records, his birth and fostering, woven together with his considerable career as a performer. Charles tells us about being one of the first Aboriginal actors (along with Bob Maza) on Australian television series Bellbird, how he and Maza started the National Black Theatre Movement in ’71 and the films he’s been in, including the Fred Schepsi classic, The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith.
Charles describes his youth from the moment he was Stolen from his mother at four months old, his time in the Box Hill Salvation Army boys home, his youthfully enthusiastic attempts at assimilation with the white community and his adolescent attempts to find his family, which lead to him being sent into foster care as a ward of the state and incarceration until he was 18.
These moments of youthful memory, these stories of how ’40s and ’50s Australia treated the very young Jack Charles, aren’t easy to listen to, even though Charles tells them with a humour and twinkling eye. What they represent is inescapable. Throughout, he treats us to a lively selection of songs, marching around the stage enthusiastically singing hymns, jazz standards and blues. His rendition of Leadbelly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night? manages to capture the menace in the lyrics with an irrepressible cheeriness.
From his adolescent recollections he moves into his 20s. He meets “the New Theatre mob Melbourne Chapter,” (that’s the La Mama and Pram Factory community of ’60s and ’70s Carlton) and his burgeoning acting career is interrupted by addiction as his life spirals into a pattern of “Acting, drugs, burgs and jail time”.
I notice that the pot he’s been making at the wheel remains lit, even as the rest of the lights shift and change around Charles. Noticing this brings the recorded format back to my attention. As Charles goes offstage to change costume, I wonder if this is the big difference between theatre and film. Maybe it’s the only one that really counts.
I know I’m missing things as the camera directs my gaze. In the theatre, when we share the same space as each other, I’m free to look at everything on stage with a broader view than the camera permits. Maybe it’s just small things I’m missing under the tyranny of the screen, but it’s all those small things that reveal a play. The screen hides these, it focuses on the most obvious. It feels a little like hearing a joke that ends with “I guess you had to be there”.
Charles returns to the stage to present the summary of his case to The Crown prosecutors. He is asking for his criminal record to be expunged, hoping that his criminal past won’t follow him forever, that although his past casts a shadow he can still come out of it. As it stands, he is prevented from setting up a business to help kids like himself, he’s prevented from being given care of his brother Artie, barred from participation in society by the laws and procedures that keep former convicts forever in limbo.
“Past ghosts haunt all who occupy this land,” Charles tells us. “Cradle to the grave, none are spared the ball and chain.”
He cleans off a slab of wood, a Jarrah head stone with a Union Jack, and tips the block towards us so we can read CRN3944 carved into it. This is Charles’ Criminal Reference number, but the abbreviation is even more chillingly familiar to many more of us now as the Customer Reference Number the government assigns you when apply for JobSeeker in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. It’s hardly comparable, but it remains a reminder that governments process undesired people with the same solutions, the same cruelties. Power discards humanity and assigns it a number to legitimise its own inhumanity.
Jack Charles V The Crown, written by Jack Charles and John Romeril, directed by Rachael Maza. Designed by Emily Barrie, audio visual sequencing by Peter Worland, lighting design by Danny Pettingill, musical direction by Nigel MacLean. Performed by Jack Charles, Phil Collings, Mal Beveridge and Nigel MacLean. Belvoir St performance. Available to stream at Arts Centre Melbourne until July 24.