Perth festival 2021: a moving celebration of Western Australia for those who made it home

Rosamund Brennan
·5 min read

It is an odd sensation, feeling foreign in the place where you grew up.

Returning to Perth recently after seven years abroad, I found all the familiar markers of home: that enormous sky with its bursts of wattle and red gum, corrugated tin roofs, sunsets as rich as fresh cut jarrah and the howling sou-wester that rips across the Derbarl Yerrigan, the Swan River.

But my frame of reference, my interior terrain, had shifted so immensely in seven years that it was like searching the face of an old friend to see how we had both changed, whether we could still co-exist in the same way.

Centred on the theme of bilya, the Noongar word for river, the 2021 Perth festival captures this palpable yen to rediscover our own backyard, to connect with the spirit of a place; to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to inhabit this land and, in turn, of ourselves.

The festival was delayed for two weeks due to a Covid scare in WA; when it opened, it was welcomed with open arms. Here, at the western edge of terra Australis, at the edge of the world, the pandemic has prompted a surge of sandgroper repatriates. One thousand people a week are returning to the state, perhaps, like me, abandoning overseas jaunts for the comforting topographies of home; its waterways, warmth, its simplicity.

Enveloping more than 100,000 sq km of Perth, the Derbarl Yerrigan is deeply entwined with the creation story of this place through the presence of the Wargl: a serpent recognised by Noongar as the embodiment of all freshwater sources.

“In our language, the word bilya (river) means the umbilical cord, it is the giver of life,” says Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn), an actress, writer and director, who co-created the world premiere performance Witness Stand at Perth festival. “For us, it’s not just a façade that looks nice. We believe that we belong to the river, instead of owning the river.”

Witness Stand takes audiences directly to the shores of Derbarl Yerrigan. Perched on tiered seating across seven sites along the riverbank, extending from Mandoon (Guildford) to Walyalup (Fremantle) and through to Wadjemup (Rottnest Island), this intimate sound performance invites us to sit where the water rises and falls, witnessing the timeless stories of Whadjuk country, and its people’s communion with the natural world.

The interactive walking performance Beside, meanwhile, combines theatre, stories and song to evoke the social and cultural histories of the Peninsula Farm along the banks of the Derbarl Yerrigan in Maylands, one of the first farms in the Swan River colony. The WA Youth Theatre Company artistic director, James Berlyn, says: “Beside is about notions of perspective. When you stand beside someone or something are you a witness, a bystander, a participant or something other?”

Our understanding of a city is in constant flux, revealing itself to us in direct proportion to our willingness to explore its depths and its shallows, to transcend our perspectival blindness. Many of the world’s great leaps in understanding started with the simple question: “How might I see differently?” It’s a choice we make – to pay attention, to look beyond ourselves.

Under the stewardship of artistic director Iain Grandage, the Perth festival program – which he calls “a love song to place” – is sourced entirely from Western Australian artists and performers. This approach was a necessary risk management strategy amid the pandemic, evidenced across the world as festivals move toward entirely local programming.

But it’s not the first time Perth festival has prioritised place. In 2020, the festival drew international headlines with its reimagining of Hecate, adapted and directed by Kylie Bracknell and presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, which was the world’s first large-scale Shakespeare production performed entirely in Noongar. And before Grandage took the reins, Wendy Martin’s Perth festivals reflected the artistic inspiration she found in the city and its surrounds, and were celebrated for their engagement with and amplification of Noongar history and culture.

At the 2021 festival, Whadjuk Noongar performer Ian Wilkes brings his own brand of truth-telling with Galup. Translating to “place of fire” in Noongar, Lake Galup (today known as Lake Monger) is a popular spot for exercise and leisure, surrounded by native banksia scrub and the stately homes of Shenton Park. But few people understand its dark history.

During the show, Wilkes walks a small group around Lake Galup at sunset, plunging the audience into various historical chapters, from the area’s importance as a camping and hunting ground to a brutal gun attack on the Indigenous population by the colonisers in which multiple people were killed. “They surrounded our people on horseback, they had no chance. They lit the lake on fire,” Wilkes says.

Sitting by a smouldering campfire at Lake Galup after the performance, Wilkes is peaceful and reflective. He asks us to collect some dirt and toss it into the lake, as an offering for the “old people”.

“We want to make sure your hearts are safe. We want you to know that you can come back here, to enjoy the beauty of this place,” he says.

“The knowledge you have now means you have a deeper respect for it.”

• Beside runs until 6 March; Galup runs until 13 March; Witness Stand runs until 14 March. Perth festival continues until 14 March