I was booked in to see three shows last night but only managed two because they utterly devastated me.
I still don’t really have words to express why The Defence at MKA’s HYPRTXT Festival upset me as much as it did. It was intentional: the playwright wanted us to be uncomfortable to highlight some very pertinent issues in our industry. But there was something about watching the events unfold as an audience laughed hysterically that left me utterly shattered. And I want to apologise to the actors, all of whom did excellent work: I was sitting in the front row and I’ve no doubt my face was radiating an aura of ‘don’t you say another fucking word’. Sorry.
In the light of my (rather extreme) emotional reaction, I’m going to respond in a slightly unusual and immensely personal way.
Three thoughts inspired from a night at HYPRTEXT:
Thought One. On The Grace of Officials.
One day, when I was fifteen, I attended an event ran by an organisation which provided legal aid to asylum seekers. At the end of the talk, I walked up to them and asked if there was anything I could do to help. It turns out there was. A week later my dad took me to their office where we picked up a dictation machine and three cassette tapes. As the lawyer handed them over she paused and looked at my dad. “I hope your daughter is open-minded,” she said. “She is going to hear some very extreme stuff.” And I did.
These were the tapes of asylum seeker hearings and every hearing I transcribed ended with asylum being denied, which was why this group now had the tapes, so as to assemble a defence for a re-hearing. (They could not be called ‘re-trials’ because, apparently, the refugee was not on ‘trial’ despite all evidence to the contrary.)
Look, the horror of the individual cases does blur together. The voices were coming from a compound in the middle of a desert via webcam, through a translator sitting in a room in Adelaide with a thick Middle Eastern accent, through a tape recorder and into my ears. I know there were rapes, death threats, dead families, torture and humiliation. What I remember more clearly than the terror was the bureaucracy. We were swimming in it.
“Please place your hand on the Quran and swear – ”
“He says to me, ‘you know! You are a Muslim. You tell them!’”
“He has not washed. He cannot touch the Quran when he has not washed.”
They tried for quite a while, these men in Adelaide, to wash the hands of a man in Woomera but in the end the request proved too complicated for the system and they had to proceed without an oath. He was handcuffed, you see. For the whole five hour hearing. This was not usual practice but he was ‘a trouble maker’.
This exchange has stuck with me for twelve years. The irony of expecting a man to be devout enough to swear an oath on his holy book without taking into account the needs of a devout man. A devout, hand-cuffed man in the middle of a desert. And yes, there were moments of humanity. Moments when men pleaded for their freedom and safety but it was the bureaucratic inhumanity that I most clearly retain.
And in the end, appropriately enough, my job vanished in a cloud of bureaucracy: the group lost access to tapes. New rules dictated that, instead of being given to the defence team, they would be sent to Sweden (I think Sweden, somewhere a very, very long way away) where an accent analyser would determine that perhaps the man came from a town two towns over from the town he said he came from. That he was a liar because his accent told a slightly different story than his words did.
The morning after Howard was re-elected for his third term I went for a walk. I wandered through the suburbs and asked, “Who are the people voting for this system? Do they know? I hope they don’t because what does that say of my countrymen and women if they know and still say ‘do it.’”
Thought two. The Defence.
We had exchanged about six emails and the word ‘nudity’ had never been mentioned. When he first asked me to take my clothes off I agreed because he said I could have my back to the camera. It was implied nudity. When he asked me to turn around, I hesitated but did it because it seemed easier.
After a few minutes, he paused to bring in some new props (a mirror, I think) and I told him I was surprised by the nudity and would be more comfortable with clothes.
He told me he was disappointed.
I told him my profile said I didn’t do nudity anymore.
He told me that he had seen photos of me naked so just assumed it would be fine.
Look, it’s not a big deal. In the end. Worse things happen every day. But it was one of the last shoots I ever did. And I didn’t share the photos. And my throat felt tight for days. And scanning over my old portfolio I had a lot of memories of not feeling in control of my own body. And assuming it will be fine is not how we make art. I’m sorry but it’s not.
Thought three. Issue-based theatre.
Listen. We demand of artists that we address issues head-on. It is central to our idea of ourselves as an artistic community: that we are brave and urgent. In his speech at the National Play Festival last week, Andrew Bovell’s said “the question for us, as writers, is what story will we tell each other”. He said “the fight for the soul of our nation continues” and that we as writers, thinkers and artists must be “up for the fight.”
And yet, say the words ‘issue-based theatre’ and people will screw up their faces. It is too unsubtle for us. Conversations can be blatant and loud and we wear our politics on the tip of our tongues and on the front of our shirts but we expect of our art not to ‘hit us over the head with a message’. We demand a subtlety that is, perhaps, impossible when faced with issues of this magnitude.
These plays were not subtle but fuck it. Bring it on, guys. Shout it loud. Just maybe give me a cup on tea and a hug at the end because you crushed me.