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Even at the height of his popularity at the turn of the 16th century, the ‘Bard of Avon’ could never have imagined that nearly 500 years later his works would be translated into every major language around the world – and would be performed in the Indigenous languages of a people living on a distant continent the very existence of which Shakespeare and his ilk were unaware of.

Picking up the works of Shakespeare is precisely what Yirra Yaakin, a Western Australian performing arts group, have done.

Performances of Shakespeare in the bard’s home city of London are of course, immensely popular, but one particular production at the Globe Theatre in 2012 smashed paradigms of how a Shakespeare play looks and sounds. It was performed entirely in Noongar, an Aboriginal language, by a troupe of Aboriginal actors all the way from their ancestral homeland in south Western Australia.

Such a juxtaposition of cultures inevitably raised some jarring ideas. The impact of western colonisation on Australian Indigenous peoples, for one. Traditional ideas about who, where and how Shakespeare is performed, is another. The way our reading of Shakespeare, the meaning and tone of words, had been grounded in our own cultural context.

The primary driver of the creation of ‘Sonnets in Noongar’ is positive, practical, and above all urgent. The aim is to use the popularity and strength of the Shakespearean canon to help preserve (and even popularise) a much more ancient one – the Noongar language.

As is the case with most Indigenous languages, the number of Noongar speakers has declined sharply over the past few decades. While more than 30,000 people identify as Noongar, less than 400 speak the language. 

Kylie Bracknell (Kaarljilba Kaardn is Kylie’s Noongar-language name), was instrumental in translating the Sonnets into Noongar and getting them onto the Globe’s hallowed stage. She is an Aboriginal actress, TV presenter, writer and director with a long list of credits to her name. 

“In adapting and performing these sonnets I have applied a long-term, community-based method of working with my own endangered Aboriginal language, helping to raising its profile and support its transmission,” she explained.

Kylie was acutely aware that Shakespeare had never been performed in an Indigenous language – in fact, there had never been a performance of anything at all in an Indigenous Australian language at the 400-year-old London institution.

So alongside the excitement of realising she was in the middle of a world-first performance, Kylie also felt a great sense of responsibility to ensure that the Noongar translations did justice to her people past and present by being “accurate, passionate, strong and beautiful.”

In an article for the Australian art journal ‘Runway’, Kylie described how ‘Sonnets in Noongar’ brought together two of her loves – Shakespeare and Noongar – and opened up unique cultural connection: “Rendering vaunted works like Shakespeare’s sonnets in Noongar language,” she wrote, “underscores the fact that it is a sophisticated language capable of poetic complexity – and certainly a language worth learning.”

The success of ‘Sonnets in Noongar’ has now gone well beyond the stage and spotlight. It has expanded to become an engaging and meaningful mechanism for passing on the Noongar language.

With support from the Noongar Charitable Trust, managed by Equity Trustees, ‘Sonnets in Noongar’ workshops are now being delivered in Western Australia providing mostly Noongar teens and young adults with the chance to keep the pride in their culture alive through learning their ancestral language. It’s a chance too, for connection – to each other and to their Noongar heritage and culture.

There is more on the horizon: In early 2020 there will be a full-length, Noongar-language production of Macbeth.

“We are bringing our language back stronger than ever,” says Kylie. “We know this would make our old people proud – and that makes us proud.”

More about Kylie’s work can be found here.