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Review: Asylum at Hellenic Art Theatre

Review by Giddy Pillai

If you want to seek asylum in Australia, you have to apply for a protection visa. This involves filling out a 27-page form that forensically interrogates why you claim to be at risk in your home country. The form asks you for the names of people you think would harm you, specific details of what you think they would do to you, what steps you have taken to seek help or move to safety, a detailed account of your movements throughout the world dating back up to 30 years, information about your identity, your family, your work history, your character and more. Once you submit the form, you have to wait a few months, maybe a year, before attending an interview with the Department of Home Affairs, where you will be grilled on the claims you have made. The point of this whole process is to work out whether you are a genuine refugee who is entitled to claim asylum. It’s a process that claims to – objectively and dispassionately – sort the legitimate from the illegitimate; the truth-tellers from the fraudsters.

In practice, things are messier and a lot more human. People who seek asylum represent the whole cross-section of humanity. Some lie to work the system, yes – but other times things that appear to be half-truths or mistruths arise out of trauma, fear, faulty memory, cultural differences, a loss in translation. People who are genuinely scared of horrific things may succumb to the human instinct to make themselves look as good as possible. They may exaggerate to make themselves look more sympathetic, or obfuscate to draw attention away from skeletons in their closets. They may pander to what they think the other person in the room with them wants to hear.

Because the task of working out who is ‘legitimate’ and who isn’t is also performed by a human. Interviews are conducted by immigration officials, who make their best attempt at objectivity, but who nonetheless carry their own mix of stresses, biases and empathies wherever they go. They make human choices about when to be firm and when to be gentle, when to interrogate something hard and when to accept it at face value, when to doubt and when to believe. They have good days and bad days, like anybody else.

Asylum was inspired by a conversation that playwright Ruth Fingret had with an immigration department official about the challenges of conducting protection visa interviews. It’s a thoughtful, perceptive study of the very human choices made by a handful of individuals whose lives intertwine and influence each other. Hajir (Eli Saad) is a Lebanese man who’s seeking asylum in Australia. He’s being interviewed by Craig (Chris Miller) - an immigration official with many years of experience under his belt. Craig’s got plenty of his own issues weighing on his mind. His son Jason (Levi Kenway) has drifted in and out of delinquency after a difficult childhood, and has wound up in a police cell, charged with armed robbery. His ex-wife Vikki (Dianne Weller) – mentally unwell and an erratic parental presence – has just shown up on his doorstep. His phone is blowing up with calls from the both of them, as well as from Christine (Emma Burns), the young police officer in charge of Jason’s case. There are holes in Hajir’s story, and Craig’s got to work out whether he’s lying and whether he’s entitled to protection. Meanwhile, Jason has been caught lying to the cops. He remains adamant that he didn’t commit the robbery, but he’s not doing himself any favours.

Craig’s a person who sees the world in black and white. You tell the truth. You do your job. You follow doctor’s orders. You play by the rules, and if you mess up, you face the consequences. You don’t walk out on your kid, but you don’t bail them out of their messes either. It’s a coping mechanism – a code designed to cut through the chaos at work and at home, and make things seem clear and predictable. It doesn’t really work. Jason feels abandoned, resentful and as though he’s been set up to fail. Vikki feels unsupported, attacked and misunderstood. In an attempt at connection, Hajir asks Craig about his life, and gently points out that the world is not really such a neat place. Kids test boundaries. Everyone messes up. People tend to be honest – but only until it doesn’t serve them anymore.

There are no Mary Sues in Asylum. Everyone is flawed. Most of the characters make questionable decisions that carry significant consequences. But there’s a real sense that everyone is genuinely doing the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt, even though it frequently brings them into conflict with each other. This is a play that deals with politically charged issues, but it isn’t a piece of advocacy theatre. All the characters hold different worldviews, and there’s no sense that one is being held up as more legitimate than the rest. There’s no ideological position that’s being advanced, and audiences are likely to leave with a range of views about which characters are most sympathetic. Nonetheless, I think this is a play that is political by virtue of its nuanced and empathetic treatment of the personal. Legal systems and social norms purport to make things clear, simple and fair. Asylum shows us that they’re inevitably doomed to fail at this: the moment we peek behind the rhetoric, we see the myriad ways that people can slip through the cracks. In the days since opening night, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about my assumptions, my biases, the lies I tell myself to cope with the world and the ways that I might do better – as a person who weighs in on legal systems in my day job and as an individual trying to show up for the people in my life.

Fingret’s script is brought to life beautifully by a universally strong cast, who across the board find the truth and humanity in a set of complex characters. There’s a palpable sense of connection between the actors, which is particularly impressive given the frequently challenging subject matter and the fact that this play had a relatively short rehearsal period that had to be worked around day jobs and the like. Plenty of credit is due to director Olga Tamara. In her masterful hands, the opening scene cleverly and precisely shows how Jason’s and Vikki’s issues weigh on Craig’s mind as he interviews Hajir, and this sets up a frame that lends the whole play a clear sense of direction. A haunting score by Greg Skehill and lighting by Mehran Mortezaei combine with Tamara’s direction to lend the work an almost cinematic feel that really works.

Asylum is a brilliant and timely piece of writing that has every right to become a modern Australian classic, and it shines here in the hands of an excellent team. Do go and see it if you get the chance – it’s well worth your time.

Image Supplied



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