Asylum plays at the Old 505 Theatre from February 3-21 2015. Presented by Apocalypse Theatre Company.
Asylum is important theatre. A collection of rehearsed readings of plays responding to the implementation of the Operation Sovereign Borders policy, it is an evocative mosaic of the issues facing and the lives of those seeking asylum in Australia.
This is a massive project. Over 65 artists are participating, and the effort that Apocalypse Theatre Company have gone to in order to bring Asylum to the stage is incredible and must be applauded. The season is broken into five blocks of five or six plays each, so it would be possible to attend a number of times and have an entirely different experience.
I saw the second block of plays. There is a tendency for a lot of political theatre to be didactic – which I think would have been more than understandable in this case, given the issue – but the pieces I saw didn't really veer too far in this direction. (As an aside – I think verbatim theatre has become popular in political stories as a way of combating this tendency towards didacticism.) This wasn't a two hour lecture and it wasn't preachy. Instead, it focused on small, human, individual stories – often a much more powerful way of communicating – and on evoking the mythic.
There were some standout pieces in the block I saw. Melita Rowston's Bread and Butter was a beautiful story about an Afghani woman who sought asylum in Australia, and has now finally found happiness and a new family to replace the one the Taliban took from her in the bakery where she works, although she remains haunted by fears that her temporary protection visa will be revoked and she will lose everything. The writing was a tiny bit heavyhanded at times, but any flaws were masked by a luminous, joyous performance by Josipa Draisma, who I could easily watch for hours. Similarly brilliant is Jan Barr in Mary Rachel Brown's Self-Service. This piece – in which Pamela, who works at Woolworths, is forced to deal with her trainee Abdul-Rasheed becoming her boss – manages to be hilarious at the same time as horrifying as Pamela's unthinking casual racism is slowly revealed.
But I think my favourite piece of the night was Amir Mohammadi's Gol Pari, a distinctly Afghani piece (like, literally – it was translated from Dari the day before the performance) which had a whiff of the mythic about it. It reminded me of the myth of Psyche and her sisters, or Cinderella and her stepsisters, as Pari Gol, the third wife of a rich man, is victimised and falsely accused of immodesty by the other two wives and her community. The most remarkable thing about this piece is its context. Mohammadi is from Afghanistan himself, a radical theatremaker who campaigned for women's rights, illegally rehearsing plays like this one and secretly showing them to an all-female audience. Someone needs to give him a big arts grant immediately, because this is the kind of theatre we need to be seeing – theatre that can bring hope, foster rebellion, and change the world.
Even leaving aside the fact that it is certainly vital and necessary theatre, Asylum is enjoyable theatre. It is evocative, engaging, and incredibly moving, and you should definitely spend your money on it - not least because all profits go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
*NB: I’m just about to hand my PhD in, so a more regular reviewing schedule should resume. My apologies if you invited me to something in the last six or so months and I didn’t respond – my inbox got super out of control with thesis revisions. Things are basically back to normal now!