Vale Ningali Lawford-Wolf, Indigenous icon

Ningali Lawford-Wolf in The Secret River (Photo credit Ryan Buchanan via the STC, which obtained permission from Ningali Lawford-Wolf’s family).

Renowned Indigenous actor Ningali Lawford-Wolf died on Sunday while touring with the Sydney Theatre Company production in Edinburgh of The Secret River, Andrew Bovell’s adaptation of the Kate Grenville novel. She was 52.

The performer and mentor was hospitalised after suffering a heart attack and died surrounded by her family.

“Ningali was an incredibly talented performer as well as a wonderfully caring and thoughtful person,” the STC posted on its website. “We’ve lost one of Australian theatre’s greatest treasures.”

A Wangkatjungka woman born under a tree at Christmas Creek Station in the far north Kimberley region of Western Australia, her film credits included Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit-Proof Fence, Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae and Jeremy Sims’ Last Cab to Darwin.

Noyce said: “Ningali will be remembered as an extraordinarily loving artist who gave her all to everything and everyone. Without Ningali Rabbit-Proof Fence would have been half the movie that we managed to create.

“Ningali was a cultural advisor, actor, drama coach and inspiration to all who worked on the film. She was the grand dame of Indigenous female performers, through her family linking pre-contact days with the 21st Century.”

In a statement Blackfella Films said: “Her talent was immense and world-class, her generosity was second to none and her star shone so bright in the Australian cultural landscape. We will miss you terribly our dear sister.”

Actor Anthony Hayes, who worked with her on Mystery Road, posted on social media: “A supreme talent. As raw and real as you can get. What a lady. I’m so happy I got to share the screen with you.”

Ningali and Michael Caton in Last Cab to Darwin.

Her Last Cab to Darwin co-star Michael Caton said: “She was very much a mentor to a lot of the girls at Fitzroy Crossing. I bet there were a few tears there today.”

Among her most recent TV credits are Lingo Pictures/Foxtel’s Upright, Bunya Productions’ Mystery Road, Luke and Dan Riches’ ABC online series KGB, Ned Lander Media, Media World and Blue Rocket’s Little J & Big Cuz and Arenamedia’s The Warriors.

Her theatre roles included her one-woman show Ningali (1994-1996), which toured nationally and internationally and earned her a Green Room Award for Best Actress and a Fringe First Award for Best New Production, Aliwa for Company B Belvoir (2001), Uncle Vanya (2005) and Jandamarra (2008) both for Black Swan Theatre Company.

She was involved in the development of The Secret River at STC, narrating its return Sydney season and national tour in 2016, Adelaide Festival performances in 2018 and the Edinburgh Festival. She performed in The Long Forgotten Dream at Sydney Opera House last year.

She is survived by her partner Joe and children Jaden, Rosie, Alexander, William and Florence and grandchildren Zavia and Mia.