Refugees: between reality and performance

Kirsten Krauth

He introduces himself as S* from Baxter IDC. He spends his time in detention with nothing to do but write and write as the days fade by. He wrote his first poem after spending days on Christmas Island mingling with children and families, enjoying seeing the kids going to school. Now in Port Hedland he is separated from their smiles and writes to remember the faces of his sons. He produces a regular newsletter to “unveil all the hidden suffering inside electrocuted fences.”

I introduce myself to S* as a member of PEN, a writers’ group that supports other writers wrongfully imprisoned in jail and in detention. When I begin to write letters I struggle for words, the right tone. Do I tell him what I see through the window on the train winding through the Blue Mountains? Does he want to know about the diversity of cultures, the beauty of landscapes; that there’s more to this place than red dirt, warped heat, hatred and endless languid days behind barbed wire? I start to create my world on a page with a new perspective. I re-create it for him and for me.

And so our dialogue begins. I send S* a program of the play I saw last night, Through the Wire, which offers accounts of relationships that have slowly developed between Australian women and men in detention seeking asylum. Similar themes are explored in documentaries: Clara Law’s Letters to Ali and Tom Zubrycki’s Molly and Mobarak. The play’s power comes from exploring the dynamics between the Australian women, one of them Jewish, and the men they want to help. The women, who include a psychologist, a guard and a lawyer, become mums, minders, activists, and one a lover, to the men–roles they perform well. A daily voice on the mobile, an unexpected birthday cake on the doorstep. My own voice is echoed in the script as the women negotiate how to communicate, even celebrate, slowly unfolding lives on different sides of the fence.

After its Sydney season, 22 suburban and regional centres lined up to present Through the Wire. However an application put by Performing Lines to the Playing Australia fund of the federal government’s Department of Communications, Information Technology and Arts (DOCITA) was unsuccesful. Surprised but undaunted, writer and director Ros Horin toured the production with Performing Lines and the assistance of the NSW Ministry for the Arts for 4 weeks in NSW and one week in Canberra to near sell-out seasons and standing ovations in most centres. Horin raised funds from many sources (“a kind of people power”, she says) and got the support of the Melbourne Theatre Company, who marketed the play gratis, to present it at the VCA’s Grant Street Theatre where it enjoyed another successful season.

The script of Through the Wire is based on words spoken by asylum seekers. It is theatre stripped back to essentials in both its stagecraft and performative elements. Writer/director Ros Horin has shaped the play over a number of years. She says she works like a sculptor, paring the dialogues back so new details are slowly revealed.

The asylum seekers are played by actors–except for an Iranian actor/playwright Shahin Shafaei who, it is revealed at the end, is one of the authors sharing his lived experience:

It is prison, you know, the detention centre, the whole shape of it…You have no idea how long you are going to be there. There is…no information about what is your status or situation here…at the second day of arrival, there are some people coming along to interview you…who ask you “Why did you come to Australia?” You would tell your story. If you don’t mention that I want to seek asylum in Australia, you will be considered a screen-out, so you are not entitled to seek asylum in Australia because you have never asked…my people smuggler wasn’t that smart to tell me you should say that.

This dynamic between performance and tragic reality reframed my experience of the play. In one of the most harrowing scenes a camera is set up in front of the actors, zeroing in on each face as they describe the circumstances that led to them fleeing their countries and families: smiling at tourists in a hotel, exposing corruption in local courts, writing theatre and performing it illegally, finding friends murdered because they’ve dared to question authority. The men’s voices mingle, rise and fall softly. A close-up of the actor’s face on a large screen above the stage means there is no place to hide and it’s hard work–a dense monologue, haltingly painful, at times beautiful imagery.

The first time I see Through the Wire I am least engaged by Shahin’s performance. This unsettles me for weeks but when I go the second time I realise this man tells his story with the distance and abstraction of a writer/actor through necessity; he can be deported at any time. How can he juggle such emotions and fears day to day in front of an audience, given that writing, acting and watching plays was what led to his being persecuted and fleeing Iran in the first place? Actor Wadih Dona (who plays Farshid) also had to flee his home (Lebanon) during the civil war. I ask him about working with Shahin:

Shahin is still on a Temporary Protection Visa…He has had his final interview as we were on tour and we still don’t know. It is incredible to watch him…but he is playing himself as a character in a director’s vision of who he is in a play that we are performing! The first reading, Shahin couldn’t even finish his story. He got up crying and left the room. It was so moving for me…because that was the first day I met him and I really got it in my heart how important this play is to him. It is not another theatre job, it is about his fucking life.

Wadih and the other actors in Through the Wire are fully aware of the crossover between perceptions of reality and performance in this work. When Wadih originally auditioned, he was in the unusual position of being up against the real Farshid for the role:

He was the real guy so you can imagine how I felt in hindsight. I didn’t actually know that it was him in the room. I though it was some exotic actor that [Ros] had selected to read as well. Later I put it all together when I met him onstage after we did opening night at the Sydney Festival. Shit, that’s Farshid! Oh my god that was the guy from the audition!

All actors were approved after the audition process by the men who had originally spoken/written about their experiences in detention and prison. But Wadih sees no difference between performing a fictional role and his characterisation of Farshid:

Word are words…it does not matter to me what their origin is. I don’t believe in psyching myself up in order to get into a certain emotional state to tell Farshid’s story…it’s like surfing to me. You go on the wave of the story and hope you can ride it to the end! Just commit to the ride and don’t worry where you want to take it.

The strength of a play like Through the Wire is its resilience and continuing topicality, as more is revealed about the government’s lack of mental health care for those in detention, about how up to 200 Australian citizens may have been deported by ‘mistake’, about the harrowing treatment of Cornelia Rau and others like her. The show continues to tour, hitting regional areas and giving asylum seekers a voice. Performing Lines has been instrumental in this. Their programming policy and regional tours encourage and nurture plays that are innovative, unique and of ongoing benefit to performers and audiences. Performing in intimate venues in places like Penrith, Wagga, Albury and Griffith, the actors get to gauge a wide variety of responses, from those who know a lot to those who know a little. A mark of the impact of the play is that audiences sometimes have difficulty differentiating the actors from the characters. Wadih tells the story of a little old lady who approached him after a performance and said tenderly:

‘I really hope you get to stay in Australia’. But the usual reaction from the audience is a profound sense of shame…and they usually ask us what they can do.

Like most in the audience of Through the Wire at Penrith, west of Sydney, I left the theatre angry. But the encounters between the asylum seekers and the women–and between the men and their writing, art, theatre, music–continue to nourish and sustain, inspiring me to write more letters to S*, to be less afraid of giving him glimpses beyond the walls. Only one thing now bothers me. Where are the women’s voices from detention?

Shahin Shafaei’s comments are taken from an interview with Andrew Denton on Enough Rope, www.abc.net.au/tv/enoughrope.

Through the Wire, writer, director, Ros Horin, performers Ali Ammouchi, Wadih Dona, Rhondda Findleton, Katrina Foster, Eloise Oxer, Shahin Shafaei, Hazem Shammas, Jamal Alrekabi; designer Seljuk Feruu, lighting Stephen Hawker, sound Max Lyandvert, music Jamal Alkrekabi, costumes Genevieve Dugard, film Heidi Riederer, Nick Meyers; producer Ros Horin with Performing Lines

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 28

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2005