Τhe eponymous Jack Charles is a figure who bears some resonance in Australia. Part of the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children, Charles endured separation from his family and abuse throughout his childhood, before turning actor, criminal, and junkie, spending much of the rest of his life in and out of penal institutions.
Charles performs almost alone upon an eloquently designed stage. Accompanied by a three-piece band tucked to one side, he narrates his life from a space subtly cast as the interior of a home. High, lightly coloured vectored backing walls create a space intimating some combination of airiness, well-heeled poverty, and comfort.
Charles moves between the various stations – a pottery workshop raised at the back, a comfy chair at the fore, a kitchenette half out of sight off to one side – telling the story of being an aboriginal man growing up in Victoria from 1943 onwards.
The piece starts with scenes from the documentary Bastardy, a seven year labour filmed about him, cast across the corner of backing walls, and then cuts into projections of his various rap sheets, overdubbed with a monologuing of his past crimes. Throughout the band plays a perfectly pitched accompaniment; a kind of respectful and mournful post-rock.
The first shot we see from Bastardy is of Charles shooting heroin. He quips his way through the various slang names for the drug, apologises, says a documentary without seeing him shoot up wouldn’t be true, talks about swabs, rides the buzz, points out that he’s no harm to anyone but himself. It’s a potent first shot, though the line about being a threat to only himself seems wryly cast in light of his upcoming list of priors for burglary.
It is also a shot with huge resonance: Charles narrates his life gently; an elderly man with a rich, actorly voice, and a spry, flexible body. He talks his way through the boys homes, the only aboriginal in a home for white children, his first kiss, a late reunion, his adoption, his meeting with his birth-mother, various siblings, a trip to an aboriginal pub.
It seems almost jolly – an old con reflecting on his past life with a wink and a nudge. But of course it is not. To English eyes and ears, half a world removed from Australia and a generation so mistreated that in 2008 Australian Federal Parliament issued a full apology for their treatment, the light hearted allusions and take-it-in-my-stride attitude feel at first almost like a pleasant, if slightly incongruous, narrative, as Charles talks his way around pottery and cat burglary in the same breath.
The final third dispels any illusions. Charles slips off stage as the band strikes up in isolation again, and when he returns, now suited, but with his wild hair still untamed, he delivers a speech addressed to an invisible court on the subject of Twentieth Century justice.
The allusions he has been making begin to solidify, and those vague references to institutionalisation, addiction, poverty, and his sexuality suddenly crystallise. Quickly and brutally Charles rips away the gauze covering the wound of a century – and more – of racist brutalisation, as a clinical psychological report reveals he suffers from PTSD.
It is potent and emotional, and bridges effortlessly that disjunct that an unschooled audience might have felt earlier on the historical circumstances surrounding the life and times of Jack Charles. Then, drained and bruised, Charles sings a couple of songs – as he has done here and there in the preceding 80 or so minutes.
A consummate showman with a tragic and enlightening life story, this is an intriguing piece of stage craft, befitting The Pit Theatre at the Barbican.