The Sydney Theatre Company has issued a statement, on behalf of the family of Ningali Lawford-Wolf, to confirm that the Kimberley-born Wangkatjungka actor died in Edinburgh, Scotland on Sunday August 11, while touring in the STC’s production of The Secret River.

Ningali Lawford-Wolf in The Secret River at the Edinburgh International Festival. Photograph © Ryan Buchanan Photography

Two days ago it was reported that two performances of the production – which has been playing at the Edinburgh International Festival before a season at London’s National Theatre from August 22 – September 7  –  had been cancelled due to her serious illness.

Lawford-Wolf, who was playing the show’s narrator Dhirrumbin, had won a rapturous response from critics, in a slew of four and five-star reviews of the production. The actor had been involved in the development of the play, which was adapted by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville’s novel of the same name. Directed by Neil Armfield, The Secret River received its world premiere in Sydney in 2013. Lawford-Wolf played the narrator in the return Sydney season in 2016 and national tour, as well as performing in the production when it was staged outdoors at the Anstey Hill Quarry in Tea Tree Gully as part of the 2017 Adelaide Festival where Limelight reviewer Clive Paget described her as “an authoritative, heartbreaking Dhirrumbin”.

In the statement, STC said that it was “absolutely devastated” to confirm the news of her passing. “Ningali was an incredibly talented performer as well as a wonderfully caring and thoughtful person. We’ve lost one of Australian theatre’s greatest treasures.”

Born in 1967 under a tree at Christmas Creek Station in the far north Kimberley region of Western Australia, Lawford-Wolf trained as a dancer at the Aboriginal Islander Dance Theatre, then moved to Bangarra Dance Theatre. From there she developed an impressive stage and screen career. She is well known for her films Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Bran Nue Dae (2009) and Last Cab to Darwin (2015) and television shows including The Circuit (2007-2010) and Mystery Road (2018).

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), and Uncle Vanya (2005) and Jandamarra (2008) for Black Swan Theatre Company. In 2014, she gave a solo performance in the reading of Windmill Baby, the winner of the 2003 Patrick White Playwright’s Award, which she co-wrote with David Milroy, and last year performed in The Long Forgotten Dream for STC at Sydney Opera House.

Lawford-Wolf was a wonderful mother to Jaden, Rosie, Alexander, William, and Florence, and loving grandmother to Zavia and Mia. Some of her closest family travelled to Edinburgh to be by her bedside after she was taken to hospital.