On the wronged side

Douglas Leonard

Deported to Danger (2004), a report by the Edmund Rice Centre, found that of 40 asylum seekers deported from Australia to 11 countries, only 5 were safe. Another 10 were found to be in so much danger that it was not safe to interview them. There are other stories. Ardeshir Gholipour, an Iranian artist and democracy campaigner, faces deportation after being detained for 5 years in Australia. By deporting him to Iran, the government is exposing him to reprisal, if not immediate killing, by the Mullahs for his work as a writer for the democracy movement. Alvar Moralez sought refuge in Australia in 2001 to escape the paramilitary in Columbia. He was deported and murdered shortly after his arrival in Bogota. An anti-narcotics campaigner, Ahib Bilal fled Pakistan in 2000 due to threats from a drug smuggling group. He was deported from Villawood Detention Centre and was murdered within 2 months of returning to Pakistan.

These case histories are frightful indictments of government policies and help to contextualise 2 recent productions by the Queensland Theatre Company. The first was last year’s Far Away by English playwright Caryl Churchill (RT64, p45), written before 9/11 but prophetically making the point that the current chill is undermining struggles for social justice everywhere. In the opening act a young girl, Joan, challenges her aunt Harper with childishly persistent questions regarding horrific events she has seen taking place outside, in which her uncle is implicated. Her aunt obstinately defends her husband and warns Joan to ask no more questions, or she will be branded a traitor.

This caution was echoed in real life when the spokesperson for the California Anti-Terrorist Information Centre recently proclaimed: “If you have a group protesting a war where the cause that’s being fought against is international terrorism…You can almost argue that a protest against such a war is a terrorist act.” Millions of dollars spent on the brutal security crackdowns at the November 2003 Miami FTAA (Free Trade Area of the Americas) summit and the 2004 G8 Summit in Georgia came from a US Congress Iraq Appropriations bill.

In the second act of Far Away a march constitutes a grotesque fashion parade of condemned prisoners wearing ornately stylised hats which have been entered in a competition. The ominous staging instantly recalled photos of the degradation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Here a remark by another prescient writer is pertinent: “Where liberty has been promised most, they had the biggest, worst prisons” (Saul Bellow, Mr Sammler’s Planet, 1970). The final act suggested an absurdly apocalyptic, horrifying conclusion in which nations, plants and animals were at war: the foxglove is as murderous as bleach, the cats come in on the side of the French, and the mallards are in alliance with elephants and the Koreans.

QTC’s initial offering this year was a remounting of Company B’s production of Melissa Reeves’ The Spook, directed by Neil Armfield. If Churchill’s was an intense, surreal fable, Reeve’s work was a sometimes uneven mix of comedy, farce and drama set in Australia in the late 1960s, when the White Australia Policy and Robert Menzies’ legacy still held sway, and Australians were embroiled alongside US troops in Vietnam. Despite stylistic differences, the 2 plays are based on the familiar premise that when there is a war on enemies are everywhere, and the protagonists are obliged to extirpate them. Hypnotised by rhetoric into a false focus on who’s on the right and wrong side, they don’t ask questions about who’s getting killed.

A naïve young working class man, Martin–Damon Herriman in a spirited and sensitively modulated performance–is recruited by ASIO agent Alex (Steve Le Marquand) to spy on the South Bendigo branch of the Communist Party. Kerry Walker as Martin’s conservative, acerbic mother, Trixie, and Anna Lise Phillips as his bouncy, put upon wife Annette, are splendid comic foils for his sense of mission, while also subtly communicating their sense of betrayal by Martin on other fronts.

By the late 60s the Communist Party was a spent political force due to splits. The 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia hastened its demise. In the irascibility of the Party hack, Frank, splenetically portrayed by Russell Kiefel, Melissa Reeves suggest it’s become a holding operation. The incisively written parts played with such complete dignity and humanity by George Spartels as the Greek fish and chip shop proprietor, George, and Eugenia Fragos as his wife, Elli, convey the attraction of progressive Communist ideals for some of the best people of the era. Their warm embrace of Martin leads to the tragedy of their deportation to Greece with the expectation of George’s murder by the Junta. We are back to the future.

Melissa Reeves’ script is brilliant in the small clinches. She maintains a light touch, choosing to eschew allegory. Both Spook and Churchill’s play serve satisfyingly contrasting functions in QTC’s brave, alternative programming.

The Spook, writer Melissa Reeves, director Neil Armfield, QPAC Playhouse, Brisbane, Feb 15-March 5

Far Away, writer Caryl Churchill, director Leticia Caceres, QPAC, Brisbane, Nov 11-Dec 4, 2004

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 40

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2005