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Voicing empathy, rehearsing protest

Caroline Wake: Apocalypse Theatre Company: Asylum

Emily Ayoub, Madeleine Baghurst, Bathers on the Sand Emily Ayoub, Madeleine Baghurst, Bathers on the Sand
photo Robert Catto
Curated and produced by Apocalypse Theatre Company, the Asylum season played for 12 nights over two weeks at the Old 505 Theatre in Sydney’s Surry Hills. There were five programs, each of which included four to six plays, 29 in total. The majority were staged readings, so the emphasis was on content rather than casting, acting, costumes or scenography. I have attempted to identify genres, trends and tendencies across the entire season.

Documents as theatre

As in the theatre of the fourth wave, there was a strong documentary element in several of the plays. Perhaps the purest example of this was Hilary Bell’s Flying Fish Cove, based “entirely on the words of witnesses” to the 2010 Christmas Island tragedy. It was as distressing as one would expect and all the more effective for being staged without the footage that has become so familiar. Ross Mueller’s Dark Angels was billed as a “dramatisation of [an] interview” he conducted with Richard Marles, the Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, so it’s not entirely clear how documentative it is. But it neatly conveys Labor’s stammering incoherence on asylum seekers, as Marles opines that this area of policy is “a really tricky space.” Yes indeed, sir—due in no small measure to your own party’s actions.

To hear Marles rehearse the so-called “drownings argument,” which states that we have to turn back boats and detain asylum seekers in order to save them from themselves, is almost too much. If international law and due process—to say nothing of ethics—were really at the heart of Marles’ deliberations, they wouldn’t sound like this.

Then there is Gol Pari by Amir Mohammadi, which is not a documentary play per se but nonetheless functions as a document, which is to say as evidence of the type of play that can and did cause him to flee Afghanistan. Mohammadi appears in person to introduce and perform in the play, which has only just been translated. It tells the story of three women who are married to the same man; the older two wives conspire to accuse the youngest wife of infidelity, among other things. In the end, she is forced to have an abortion and then stoned. Intended to inspire rebellion, Gol Pari also reads—like many western fairytales—as a brutal warning to women to behave or else. I find myself wondering how the women in the original audience received it: did they really need reminding of their fate or did the illicit thrill of attending the theatre override everything else? That I can ask this points to the immense cultural gap this play attempts to bridge.

Christopher Bryant’s 63 Days which deals with a hunger strike, also has documentary elements, citing comments from message boards as well as extracts from the Refugee Convention. This staging strategy is recognisable from myriad performances about the fourth wave of refugees, but reading from legal documents no longer seems enough, if indeed it ever was. Cybele McNeil’s Day 48 is also about a hunger strike: the striker himself is silent while the staff around him speak in endless slogans and jargon.

Representing hunger
To represent a hunger strike in the theatre poses several problems, which these plays have yet to solve. First, there is the problem that hungry bodies would never be able to undertake the labour of acting or even not-acting, in performance theorist Michael Kirby’s sense of the term, on stage. Second, there is the problem of duration: hunger strikes unfold over days, weeks and months. In other words, having a fit young actor lying limply on the floor for a few minutes doesn’t really do it. I suspect writers and directors need to become either more literal or more lateral: more literal in the sense that they might actually undertake hunger strikes, as performance artist Mike Parr did for 10 days in Water from the Mouth (2001; see RT 44, p29; RT120, p5) and as activists did in February this year in the Hunger for Justice solidarity hunger strike. Or, they could become more lateral in the sense that hunger strikes are rarely about hunger, but rather about staging one’s own disappearance or disintegration. Recall Shahin Shafaei’s solo performance Refugitive (2002-4) in which the hunger striker’s stomach almost becomes a separate character. I’m desperate for someone to wear a mask and slowly break it off their face before eating it or to outline a body on the floor with a paste made out of blood and phosphate dust from Nauru—anything besides actors pretending to languish on stretchers.

On the inside

Several other plays are also set in detention centres, including Laura Lethlean’s Where the Breath Is Kept, which takes place in a solitary confinement cell in the wake of an asylum seeker’s suicide attempt. The female night cleaner and the male centre manager converse while waiting for another staff member to help them write the incident report. The dialogue reveals that she is local to the island and glad to be employed at all whereas he’s a family man far from home, doing it for the inflated salary. The play raises issues of class and gender and, more significantly, differential degrees of complicity. Does the impoverished citizen of a Melanesian or Micronesian island bear the same degree of responsibility as the wealthy public servant from Canberra, even though only the former literally gets her hands dirty? Lethlean doesn’t think so.

I Could Be You, by Hoa Pham, takes place in a detention centre haunted by a character I initially took to be a reference to Cornelia Rau (unlawfully detained under the Government’s Mandatory Detention program, 2004-5) but who turns out to be a woman who migrated from Germany to Australia half a century ago. One of the detainees is a foreign-born, Australian-bred criminal, who is awaiting deportation back to his country of birth, recalling Zeki Togan, the protagonist in Linda Jaivin’s novel The Infernal Optimist (2006) as well as the real life cases of Robert Jovicic, Stefan Nystrom and others.

Two plays are set not in detention but in the offices where interviews are conducted and life and death decisions made. In The Complete Guide, by Ruth Melville, a father and son memorise a handbook about Australia in order to pass the refugee determination process. In Project 949, by Victoria Haralabidou, two UN representatives arrive on an island; it turns out one is investigating the other. It’s structured like a thriller, an unusual genre in this field.

In Michele Lee’s Untitled, two girls befriend each other in detention; in the second act, two young women explain why they vote for the Greens. They may or may not be the same pair; I overheard different theories in the foyer. Irene Assumpter’s Fitting into Wageni contrasts the fates of those who arrive as asylum seekers with those who arrive as educated migrants: the suggestion is that this is how class differences at home are allowed to reproduce themselves in Australia.

In the community

In addition to these plays set inside the immigration system, several were set outside in the community. In Nil By Sea, by Katie Pollock, an asylum seeker falls from the sky into a suburban street. The neighbours gather around his shattered body, speculating on his origins and motivations and slowly revealing their own. Steven McCall’s Safekeeping takes us from the city to the country, where a farmer and his daughter find an asylum seeker hiding in their shed and force her to labour on their property for two years. It’s a strange miniaturisation of Australia’s political actions, yet also an inversion, seeing as we have now outsourced the work of detention.

Physical theatre and fable

Two other plays take a more oblique approach to the topic. Devised by Emily Ayoub, Madeline Baghurst, Jack Murray and Ben Pierpoint, Bathers on the Sand is the only physical theatre work in the season. It stands out for the skill of its clowns (the two women), its live soundtrack (the two men) and its gentle humour. The antics of the clowns reveal that we are all ‘other’ when surrounded by sand and faced with infinite water. In Elias Jamieson Brown’s Missy and Her Master (A Fable), the ‘other’ is a domestic shorthaired cat who suddenly tires of the ‘domestic’ bit and goes on the prowl. Tom Conroy is the lithe and insolent Missy, while Camilla Ah Kin is her increasingly frantic master.

Solo voices & puppet

There are also several monologues. In Melita Rowston’s Bread and Butter, a refugee from Afghanistan reflects on her life while kneading dough. Despite a charming performance from Josipa Draisma, the metaphor becomes laboured and the play too sentimental about the “plight of the migrant,” recalling Canadian writer Julie Salverson’s critique that the genre often portrays refugees as “exoticized and deliberately tragic others.”

Less problematic works included Noëlle Janaczewska’s very brief Meena, in which an asylum seeker’s mother waits and frets for her son. In Tasnim Hossain’s Why We Run, a Palestinian-Syrian refugee gives a pep talk to an Australian aid worker before they embark on a charity race across the desert. Most interesting is its insistent use of the second-person, which due to the ambivalence of the English “you” always already includes the audience in its address. Sheila Pham’s These People shares a title with Ben Ellis’ 2003 play about children in detention, but that’s where the similarities end. Pham’s monologue features a former refugee from Vietnam complaining about the new arrivals. It’s ironic and discomfiting, but as in the case of Bryant’s play, I’m not entirely sure what is to be gained by rehearsing the opinions of the intolerant.

In Eleanor Rex’s A Confession, a woman gives an account of her experience of working in Villawood Detention Centre. It does not claim documentary status as explicitly as Bell or Mueller’s plays, but the program does claim “honesty, rawness, and vulnerability.” Sadly, the figure of the troubled former detention centre worker is a familiar one, having appeared in plays such as Citizen X (2002), These People (2003) and Through the Wire (2004). The workers speak for themselves in television programs such as ABCTV Four Corners’ The Guards’ Story (2008) and have penned books like The Undesirables (2014). If nothing else, the confessional genre proves that these policies are damaging Australians as well as asylum seekers.

Far less familiar is Georgia Symon’s monologue, A Puppet Show for All Ages, in which an actor is taken over by the character of an asylum seeker. Zeniah is absolutely delighted to have arrived in someone else’s body, on stage no less, and proceeds to make the most of it; the actor reappears in brief moments of struggle, but for the most part Zeniah has the upper hand. The only false note in this performance comes when Zeniah threatens to make the actor stitch her lips; a threat we know will not be carried out. Overall, however, this was a fascinating play and there is much more to be explored when it comes to the parallels between acting and hosting another’s body.

Ironic laughter

In Mary Rachel Brown’s monologue Self-Service, a middle-aged woman named Pamela talks about having to train Abdul-Rasheed, a refugee from Afghanistan, to work in her deli. In a twist on the usual ‘I’m not a racist but,’ Pamela insists “I’m not like those people on YouTube that lose their shit on public transport. You would never pick it if you saw me in the deli. I’m all smiles. Surrounded by kids from all over the world. No one has ever called me a racist.” In other words, ‘I am a racist but I usually bother to disguise it a little bit.’ It’s a pretty apt metaphor for our migration policies as a whole, not to mention a very funny performance by Jan Barr, delivered while devouring a Mars bar. There is also sly humour in Paul Gilchrist’s The Danger of Safety, in which an older woman reminisces about her own migration from England. The issue of how migrants who enjoy racial privilege relate to those who do not deserves further exploration.

Two other plays stand out for their use of comedy, a genre often absent from the fourth wave. The first is Noëlle Janaczewska’s Go for Gold, in which Australia is competing in some kind of Olympics of cruelty. It reminded me of John Clarke’s The Tournament, where he cast politicians in a fictional tennis championship. In Go for Gold, the US is the obvious favourite for waterboarding, but Australia is way out in front when it comes to mistreating asylum seekers. The second play is Tania Cañas’ Three Angry Australians, which takes place in the office of a non-government organisation. The three workers gleefully get stuck into the ineffective protestors outside, the artists who contact them wanting to be introduced to refugees so that they can make a work about them or, better yet, who want to collaborate with refugees by giving them cameras, so that they can do the bulk of the work and the artist can be praised for her inclusive vision and practice. They talk tough, tweet Brecht and completely skewer the delusions of those who would ‘give’ a voice to those who actually have their own but who aren’t being heard.

Overall, the Asylum season is interesting for the diversity of both its authors and actors; the names and faces are far more varied than those seen in most mainstream productions. The plays themselves are at their best when exploring less common genres and modes such as comedy, puppetry, physical theatre and the thriller. They are less interesting when rehearsing old tropes and habits. Indeed, it is frustrating that some writers have not researched previous works made by, with and about refugees and so repeat approaches that no longer have impact. Nevertheless, Asylum was well-warranted—97 artists were involved in total and all profits went to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne and the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney—and Dino Dimitriadis deserves praise for his vision and organisation.

Apocalypse Theatre Company, Asylum, Old 505 Theatre, Sydney, 3-15 Feb, 2015

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 4-5

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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