One of the most charming traditions at Melbourne’s La Mama Theatre is the nightly raffle. Everyone’s tickets go into a draw for a prize that’s usually linked to the show in some way – a jar of preserves, perhaps, or free tickets. It remains the only raffle I’ve ever won, although when my ticket turned up, the trickster gods ensured the prize was my own book.
For the opening night of The Audition, a play that looks at Australia’s immigration regime, the prize was handsome: a copy of Behrouz Boochani’s award-winning No Friend But the Mountains, his poetic and ultimately traumatic account of his imprisonment in the Manus Island detention centre, famously written on his mobile phone and sent to translators by WhatsApp.
As I travelled home, I checked my Twitter feed. Boochani was free, taking part in a writers’ festival in Christchurch, New Zealand. “So exciting to get freedom after more than six years,” he wrote. “Thank you to all the friends who made this happen.”
Through his various writings – journalism, a documentary and finally his book – Boochani has become the public face of the Australian government’s inhumanity to asylum seekers and refugees. He’s by no means the first. It’s depressing to consider how many artists have protested against detention centres since the Keating government introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers in 1992. The Audition, a multi-authored work from Outer Urban Projects, is only the most recent example.
Perhaps the finest theatrical examination I’ve seen of the cruelties of detention was the devastating Subclass 26A, performed at fortyfivedownstairs in 2005. A group-devised work, it was constructed as a collage of documents from the Department of Immigration, letters from asylum seekers and primary research conducted by the artists themselves, spoken in English and Arabic.
Subclass 26A used three actors and three dancers to explore the brutalities of the detention regime. It created a powerful enactment of the mind-killing routines of imprisonment, which is a potent aspect of Boochani’s book as well. Against the denatured language of officialese, the human body spoke an anarchic tale of despair, love, anger and madness. As I wrote at the time:
“A striking element 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.”
One of the dramaturges of Subclass 26A was Maryanne Lynch, who is also a dramaturge for The Audition. But The Audition is most intimately related to Anthem, a revisiting of Melbourne Workers Theatre’s Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, which recently had a successful premiere season at the Melbourne International Arts Festival.
Patricia Cornelius, Melissa Reeves and Christos Tsiolkas all wrote for both plays, and Irine Vela, co-writer and composer for Anthem, directs The Audition. There are in fact seven writers for this project: added to the three above are Sahra Davoudi and Milad Norouzi (who both also perform in the play), Tes Lyssiotis and Wahibe Moussa. The music is largely improvised from Iranian classical modes by Vahideh Eisaei, who performs live on stage. That adds up to a lot of creative minds to wrestle into an 80-minute piece.
The challenge of multi-authored pieces is shaping them into a single, coherent work. The very nature of theatre means that it has multiple authors – meanings on stage are created by many things beside words. Those with the tasks of bringing all the disparate elements together – usually the director and, if present, a dramaturge – must ensure that the different semantics of performance, sound, set and costume design and so on are all, in the end, speaking the same language.
Although it feels like a trend du jour, I’m yet to be convinced that multiple writers, who add extra layers of complexity to an already complex act, are an especially fruitful way forward. In both Anthem and The Audition, I felt that the seams between the different creative minds remained too visible beneath the direction: the underlying movement of the work pulls in different directions. Although The Audition has undeniably powerful individual moments, I was never entirely sure what I was watching.
The theme is clear enough: that the process of auditioning for a role, exposing oneself and one’s body to the judging eye of the auditioner, has parallels with the situations in which asylum seekers and refugees find themselves when they are auditioning to be a citizen in Australia.
The various writers explore various aspects of racism through intimate interactions and reflections. The play becomes a series of interrogations of what constitutes representation, perception and performance, with a metatheatrical touch.
It begins with a bravura monologue written by Patricia Cornelius and performed by Mary Sitarenos. One of our most fearlessly sensual actors, Sitarenos delivers a masterclass on the art of acting, picking apart and demonstrating her skills. “I’m Olive,” she tells us. At first, as the text circles around itself, it’s not clear what she means – but it becomes evident that she is talking about Olive in Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.
Sitarenos’s character knows Olive, she tells us. She knows who she is and what she feels; she understands her desire for freedom, her horror of the soul-crushing everyday. But she will never get to play her, because she’s not “Australian” enough. To bring the subtext to the fore, Australian means white-skinned; Olive is certainly not olive-skinned, an irony that deepens as the monologue continues.
In another scene, the Australian director (Peter Paltos) casting for his production of The Women of Troy ignores the lived experience of the actor he’s auditioning (Davoudi) in favour of his own stereotyped assumptions about what it means to be a victim of war: the woman must be broken, hysterical, without pride.
These metatheatrical explorations of how prejudice shapes and limits possibilities are woven through accounts of imprisonment and loss: the refugee whose daughter drowned in a boat-sinking; interactions between bureaucrats, immigration lawyers and refugees; glimpses of a childhood spent in the Woomera detention centre; a young man alone in the “beautiful prison” that is Australia; a young woman who came to Australia to marry, and is now divorced.
From the beginning, this is a showcase in which a fine cast can amply demonstrate their skills. The actors play multiple roles, turning in a trice from petitioners to their judges. The electric switch from one to the other, in the suspended seconds when roles blur together before they differentiate into separate circumstances, creates powerful theatre. There are moments of poetic clarity, heightened by Eisaei’s music, that are deeply moving.
But the play still left me with some nagging questions. Subclass 26A, for example, was driven by a wider vision that indicted the entire colonial system that led to the systemic miseries it portrayed. Likewise, Boochani’s No Friend But the Mountains theorises his prison experience as part of a larger interlocking intersection of oppressions that, stealing from feminist language, he terms the “kyriarchal system”.
There’s little sense of this wider view in The Audition: it presents injustices, but primarily as individual experiences. The red earth strewn around the stage in Adrienne Chisholm’s set made this increasingly uncomfortable: perhaps it was meant as a silent reminder of the First Nations peoples who were dispossessed at settlement, but it only underlined their absence.
There seemed to be no consciousness of the First Nations peoples dispossessed by all of us who migrate to Australia, whether through conventional channels or the traumatic paths of the asylum seeker. The closest we came to any wider view was Milad Norouzi’s poem about Australia as a “beautiful prison”. And I wonder if it’s possible to properly understand what’s happening in our gulags and prisons if we don’t acknowledge how deeply these injustices are embedded in our colonial histories.
This isn’t about needing some kind of didactic analysis, or some token mention of Aboriginal experience; it’s a deeper, more vexed question about how the aesthetic serves the subject. Although we are given a vague sense of the structural forces at work in the cruelties, large and small, that afflict the different characters, the work’s fragmentary nature means it never quite adds up to a larger picture.
The Audition is showing at La Mama Courthouse, Melbourne, until tomorrow.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 23, 2019 as "Piece offering". Subscribe here.