PYT Fairfield Lead artist: Karen Therese Arts House North Melbourne, July 20-23
Some very interesting things are happening in the arts in western Sydney just now. Quietly, and with surprisingly little attention from the rest of Australia, a remarkably fertile cultural milieu has developed.
Perhaps the best exemplar is PYT Fairfield, which seems to be going from strength to strength. PYT Fairfield is led by Karen Therese, an artist of singular dedication and strength of vision. In recent years, Therese has emerged as one of the most exciting voices in Australian culture, largely on the back of her work at PYT Fairfield, and with a small but significant amount of support from funding bodies.
Tribunal is a meaty and quietly passionate play that picks at the scabs of Australian politics and identity. Originally staged at Griffin last year in Sydney, this is its first trip away on tour.
Tribunal’s conceit is as a kind of Australian truth and reconciliation commission, presided over by an indigenous elder, Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon. On trial is Australia’s recent immigration policies, and, by implication, Australia itself.
Bringing together the voices of Afghan refugees and the Australian human rights lawyers and Red Cross workers who try to help them, Tribunal presents the dilemmas of forced migration and militarised borders with a knobbly but by no means pessimistic realism. The story is a familiar one, and yet here it is rendered fresh.
The key story is that of Afghan Hazara refugee Mahdi Mohammadi, a young actor-director forced to flee Kabul after his feminist theatre troupe came to the attention of the Taliban. Mohammadi’s story is perhaps atypical of the plight of refugees globally: displaced by violence, he was lucky enough to be judged a genuine refugee and gain safety in a rich nation. In contrast, as he reminds us, many aren’t so lucky, including a friend currently locked up in Australia’s immigration jail in Nauru.
But Mohammadi’s story is also important in that he reminds us why people want to come to Australia in the first place: not just to escape violence and war, but also to build a new life for themselves and their families. It is only by attacking or ignoring the individual stories of people like Mahdi Mohammadi that the citizens of rich democracies like Australia can pretend that our policies are in any way generous, liberal or humane.
Every show needs a star, and Mohammadi is it. He portrays his journey with quiet assurance and deep integrity. It’s a kind of theatre that reminds you that name actors, expensive sets and cutting-edge sound designs are entirely superfluous to the basic and universal human experience of narrative. Also impressive were Katie Green, playing a disillusioned Red Cross worker, and Paul Dwyer, playing a series of officious Department of Immigration bureaucrats.
What made Tribunal so refreshing for me was the rediscovery of a type of theatre that had once seemed almost extinct in this country. After its hay day in the 1980s, community theatre was systematically attacked by hostile funding bodies in the 2000s, culminating in the disastrous abolition of the Community Cultural Development Board of the Australia Council in 2005. The reasons were complex, but they boiled down to elitist disdain for a supposed lack of artistic quality.
By the early 2010s, Australian stages seemed to have been taken over by an ostentatious and showy style of theatre, in which classic texts were used as vehicles for star directors to demonstrate their mastery of spectacle.
In contrast, Tribunal taps into different theatrical traditions, and asks very different questions of its audience. Despite a few rough edges at certain moments, there was no lack of craft on display.
By insisting on presenting the voices of real asylum seekers, woven into a true narrative, PYT Fairfield has given us a genuinely radical work of theatre. Instead of the faux-verite of a Simon Stone, here we saw real people inhabiting their life experiences, in a way that was none-the-less powerfully theatrical. The result was both moving and profoundly satisfying.