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Review: Saplings at The Rebel Theatre

Review by Giddy Pillai


Two thirds of Australians don’t know this, but in most Australian states and territories children as young as 10 can be arrested, held in police cells, charged and prosecuted for crimes. It’s a law that’s out of step with international standards – the United Nations says that children shouldn’t be held criminally responsible for their actions until they are at least 14 years old. A public campaign to raise the age across the country is currently in full swing.


These facts provide meaningful context for ATYP’s Saplings – but as a backdrop rather than a plot point. Saplings is a play about law, but the usual suspects – police, politicians, judges – are refreshingly out of view. Instead, the focus remains squarely on the way that young people interact with and experience the justice system. 


Saplings is told through a series of vignettes, in which a collection of young people run into the law in various ways. One kid has ended up in questioning because his brother Josh ate the last pack of Mi Goreng. Another is your guy if you ever need to know the best way to smuggle a vape into a holding cell. A boy has big dreams, because maybe if they come true he could help his mum pay the electricity bill. Another dreams modestly of a stable life and needs to decide how his mum’s release from prison fits in with his plans. Some of these stories are laugh-out-loud funny. Some are heartbreaking. Many are both. All of them feel real.


Saplings is a work of fiction, but one that’s infused with real life. Over a year full of workshops, chats and a whole lot of table tennis, writer Hannah Belanszky, ATYP’s George Kemp and Youth Action’s Veronica Gordon spent quality time with young people from all across NSW, and got to hear their experiences with and perspectives on the justice system. This process has produced a piece of theatre that’s genuinely special. Belanszky has written a raw and beautiful script that feels like it's brimming with the voices of young people. We only get to spend a few minutes with each character, but every one we meet feels real, relatable and multidimensional. 


Plenty of credit for this is owed to the stellar ensemble cast of Maliyan Blair, Nyasha Ogden, Ioane Sa’ula and Wesley Patten. It’s no easy task to switch between characters on a dime and make each one feel like a unique, fully-realised individual, but they seem to manage it effortlessly. Collectively, the characters go through just about every emotion imaginable, and the cast bring this to life with beautiful subtlety. Director Abbie-lee Lewis has made the thoughtful choice to tuck the biggest feelings of all behind the survival mechanisms of humour and bravado, and the cast execute this perfectly. 


Other production choices tie the play together elegantly. Angela Doherty and Morgan Moroney have co-designed a set that’s minimalistic enough to steal no focus from the characters and their stories as well as flexible enough to allow the world of each new scene to be built efficiently and artistically. Composer and Sound Designer Michael Weir and Associate Sound Designer Gryffyn Long have created a rap and hip-hop driven soundscape using music made by young people in the youth justice system. This really adds to the authenticity that Saplings delivers in spades, without ever feeling overbearing. The play is bookended with a beautiful metaphor I won’t spoil, except to say that it will stay with me for a long time. 


The production team made the choice to cast Saplings in a way that reflects the statistical realities of the youth justice system. Indigenous children are more than 17 times as likely to be imprisoned than non-Indigenous children, and around 90% of detained children are boys. These statistics, and the systemic factors that underpin them are heartbreaking. But it is a joy to see a cast of young, majority Indigenous actors absolutely shine in a production of such quality. I’m excited to see more of every single person who’s had a hand in this work.


Saplings is just a gorgeous production, made with precision, skill, thought and a whole lot of heart. And like the very best theatre it entertains from start to end, while leaving its audience with plenty to think about. I hope many people get to experience it.


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