Subclass26A ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 17, 2005


Subclass26A, directed by Bagryana Popov, performed by Rodney Afif, Ru Atma, Natalie Cursio, Simon Ellis, Nadja Kostich, Majid Shokor; music by Elissa Goodrich; design by Anna Tregloan; dramaturgy by Maryanne Lynch.

The vexed question of politics and art is one of the fiercest debates of modern culture. Broadly the argument rages between two poles. In the blue corner (or the red, if one is American) are those who contend that art is above politics, an argument stemming from Matthew Arnold's imperial ideas about culture. In the opposing corner are the revolutionaries, who claim that art has a duty towards radical ideologies. Most artists, who are by nature sceptical of dogma of any kind, can be found slugging it out somewhere in the middle, arguing on the one hand that all art is inescapably political, and on the other that its highest duty is to its own imperatives.

It's wholly untrue to assert, as many conservative critics do, that art that engages with social and political critique compromises an essential artistic purity. Much of the significant art of the past three centuries - from Shelley's Masque of Anarchy and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro to the work of Brecht's Berliner Ensemble or Brazilian theatre activist Augusto Boal - has been in the tradition of political and social dissent. As well as, it must be confessed, much of the worst - we've seen agitprop, and we don't like it.

Art, after all, should do rather more than restate arguments that would be better expressed in a pamphlet. Subclass26A, a powerful group-devised movement piece which addresses the question of Australia's brutal treatment of asylum seekers, demonstrates beautifully how this can be done.

I will describe the theatre in a moment. But first, some background, necessary because this piece employs a fragmentary text drawn in part from a variety of real sources: documents from the Department of Immigration, letters from asylum seekers, and primary research conducted by the artists themselves.

Our treatment of asylum seekers is one issue that starkly exposes the darker side of Australia's self-image as "the lucky country". We are the only nation in the world which compulsorily imprisons asylum seekers, a policy which calls up unsettling echoes of gulags and concentration camps. Tellingly, as Richard Ackland commented in 2003, the Federal Government's "Pacific solution" demonstrated a baffling insensitivity to the grim connotations which still attend that word "solution".

As Malcolm Fraser and others have pointed out, our immigration policies are racist and inhuman. But those who protest the totalitarian aspects of these policies are attacked as "bleeding heart liberals" with an "agenda", their voices marginalised by a combination of misrepresentations or outright lies and populist xenophobia.

Asylum seekers are the only class of people who may be locked up indefinitely, beyond the redress of any court. They have fewer rights than convicted paedophiles or murderers, despite the fact that they have been charged with no crimes, and the even more appalling fact that many of them are children: between 1999 and 2003, 2,184 children had been held for varying lengths of time (averaging more than a year) in detention centres.

The suffering caused by the Howard Government's policies has been widely documented and has attracted widespread international and local condemnation, including rebukes from all six of the human rights agencies of the UN. Even the horrors of the SEIVX and the heart-rending personal testimonies of the children whose lives have been blighted by imprisonment have made no impact on the public apathy towards those the popular media dub, erroneously, "illegal immigrants". The sheerly brutal cynicism of our policies toward refugees and asylum seekers is an on-going scandal of Australian society.

Bagryana Popov and her performers address these issues with intelligence and passion, eschewing the temptations of simplistic agitprop. Neither do they go down the now conventional road of "documentary theatre": the added element of dance (three performers are dancers, three actors) gives the piece a stylised, alienating edge which, in a paradox peculiar to art, intensifies its emotional power.

While this group is deeply engaged with the issues, it is equally concerned to give these experiences the dignity of art. This work has the clarity of a high degree of moral and intellectual sophistication. The fragmentary text - a collage of individual experience spoken in English and Arabic, bureaucratic documents and dialogues - is poetically cadenced. Dramaturges Maryanne Lynch and Tom Wright create a simple narrative spine around three asylum seekers, telling a story of arrival, detention and Kafka-esque bureaucracy. Against the impersonal officialese of imprisonment, the human body speaks an anarchic tale of despair, love, anger and madness.

Popov's direction has an attentive eye to focus, creating eddies of movement and speech which rise chaotically and suddenly clear to brief vignettes, only to be caught up again in a flurry of movement. There is an emphasis on neurotic repetition, both the endless monotony of institutional life ("breakfast from 8.30 to 9am, lunch 12 to 12.30...") and the increasingly dissociated movements of mental illness. The emotional fluctuations are stringently orchestrated by Elissa Goodrich'sspare, percussive score.

This approach permits a moral and political complexity often missing from theatre which has previously addressed these issues. Brutality is not confined to officials: the prisoners themselves are capable of cruelty. One of the striking elements of this piece is its focus on how such policies brutalise those who implement them as much as their targets. The despairing social worker unable to help increasingly desperate people, the guards who lose their capacity for empathy, are as trapped as the asylum seekers in a nightmare of systemic, soul-eroding sadism.

Anna Tregloan's stylishly minimalist design uses the white box space of fortyfivedownstairs to magnify the sense of human alienation, the notion that asylum seekers and refugees are infections which must be quaratined from the social body. The huge window which usually dominates the theatre is covered by a white wall into which is let a tiny, opaque window, which provides the only glimpse of freedom. The stage is divided by lighting and subtle design elements into rectangular areas through which the performers move uneasily, dark human figures in an antiseptic, inhuman universe. The audience is seated at the near end of the theatre, and the production takes full advantage of the stage's depth, creating a surprisingly rich texture of physical gesture and spatial image with a rigorously limited vocabulary.

A great deal of this production's success stems from its disciplined restraint, its refusal to press the standard emotive buttons and so diminish the complexities of the human issues it addresses. Subclass26A powerfully communicates not only the despair of detained asylum seekers, but the reasons for that despair; we can work out the injustice for ourselves. One of the performers, Iraqi actor Majid Shokor, is quoted in the program as saying: "theatre is a place where justice and redemption can be found". I don't believe that anyone involved in this production believes that this work will stop the mistreatment of those who only ask for our help; but the urgent desire to express the complexities of human experience, to redress the silencing of the powerless, is nevertheless a potent political act. An act of hope.

Fitzroy Learning Network
The National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention
Human Rights Watch:Deterring Asylum Seekers by Violating Rights

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