It’s an interesting theatrical concept to concentrate on the problem, and problems, of refugees who have ended up in Australia over the last century, and in particular to base all the material on reality rather than imagination. The reality input to Sean Mee’s play has been the text of extensive interviews with refugees by researchers from QUT’s Academy of the Arts. Mee has distilled from the many stories and thousands of words a sample of edited first-person accounts by refugees of their experiences. It is this approach which has resulted in Mee defining his role, not as author, but as devisor of the project, in addition to being director.
The stories cover some 21 countries, from Afghanistan to Yugoslavia, and from the regions of Europe, the Middle East, Asia and South America. The title comes from the obsession of police and bureaucrats with travellers’ papers. In an early scene the characters imploringly hold up their identity papers and passports as evidence of their existence and claims on life. Sadly, of course, escape to Australia doesn’t mean an end to the paper chase.
La Boite abandons its in-the-round signature to present the play at one end of the performance space. By removing seats and setting up a large screen, it becomes more like a conventional theatre. (There is even seating on the normal stage area.) The action, however, is far from limited to the floor-level stage, and spreads above the screen to permit effective multi-dimensional settings. The actors give robust performances, and are accompanied by evocative violin music.
It is a worthy project, particularly at a time when Australians are pondering their origins and feeling misgivings about their treatment of contemporary asylum seekers. Yet it doesn’t quite work as theatre.
All the words of the actors are drawn from interviews with refugees. This I expected to give the play a searing reality. It is indeed striking that the stories of appalling suffering and courageous resistance are real. Tales that stick in the memory include the recounting of border crossings, with children hiding for hours under the luggage in a car while guards interrogate their parents, or stories of people being thrown out of one country but facing certain execution if returning to their homeland. On the other hand, not a few of the comments are rather trite: not particularly insightful or unusual. After all, lots of women have relationship and communication difficulties with their fathers which they may try to understand and remedy in their later years. All sorts of people have misunderstandings over language and vocabulary. (These produce some of the play’s few funny moments, such as confusion between paw-paw and the German Popo, meaning rear end.)
But I couldn’t help thinking that film or radio would be a better medium for transmitting these stories presenting the actual interviews rather than having actors memorise and re-present the words. The technique worked well in La Boite’s last show, Way Out West, but there the stories were interspersed with song and dance to make an entertaining whole. Here there is little such leavening.
In the end there are rather too may voices, too many different and disconnected experiences. The characters don’t even have names, and it isn’t always clear whether we’re witnessing the continuation of one character’s story or are being introduced to a new role. It’s difficult to identify with the people and to fully understand them and feel for them, other than as outsiders. A better and more conventional approach may have been to take two or three individuals’ stories and work through them in detail. The commitment to 100% actuality would have been sacrificed in terms of the actual words spoken, but such an approach may have been more true to the basic reality of the refugees’ common experiences.
Towards the end of the play a refugee talks about going to a Carols by Candlelight evening more to observe the people in the audience than to take part in the ceremony: “I observe it, I think about it, I feel for it, but I’m not there for it,” she says. I felt a bit the same way with A Paper House.
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