Tribunal theatre review (Carriageworks, Sydney)

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A didgeridoo plays, a dark ceiling is lit with starry effects, a simple Afghan mat is laid out, a few chairs sit either side. Tall stacks of brown filing boxes are neatly lined up backstage. Aunty Rhonda Dixon Grovenor, a Darug/Yuin elder, walks on stage and maps out the peoples of the Sydney region. She has just established her authority to welcome us to her country. And she tells us she’s ashamed of the way we treat people who come here looking for refuge: “It’s not our culture to treat people this way”.

Tribunal, conceived and produced by Fairfield-based theatre company PYT 1, asks us to imagine what a truth and reconciliation commission presided over by an Aboriginal elder would look like. As Aunty Rhonda welcomes charismatic Afghani performer Mahdi Mohammadi to the stage, there’s a touching coming together of two cultures as he drapes an Afghani scarf over her resplendent possum coat. Their conversation is interrupted when a Department of Immigration functionary (actor and academic Paul Dwyer) takes over to re-enact the bloodless real-life interrogation Mahdi faced when he first arrived in Australia by boat.

The Department’s tick-a-box questions – a format that already assumes criminality, and is embedded with limited presumptions that can’t possibly capture the complexity of a globally-lived life – come from the actual transcript of the long interview Mahdi underwent. Aunty Rhonda takes over again, drawing out the Mahdi’s much more interesting story. A member of Afghanistan’s Hazara minority, his family of 15 fled to Russia when he was a child. After watching the attacks on the World Trade Centre on television, his father brings the family home, believing the US would defeat the Taliban and that they might finally be safe.

Life in an Afghanistan Mahdi has no real memory of turns out to be a fettered one, where male and female university students aren’t supposed to mix. The boys risk punishment anyway when they drop their phone numbers on the desk of girls they like. Mahdi forms a theatre group whose shows are based around Hazara women. He realises now it was a ‘feminist’ theatre group. His performers are charged with crimes against sharia law and Mahdi flees in fear of his life.

It’s an emotional and, at times, difficult show to watch. It’s also hard to imagine a more important topic for theatre to tackle right now.

Other stories are told. PYT’s artistic director, Karen Therese, performs a verbatim monologue – full of unaffected ums, ahs and long pauses – that is the real-life testimony of her friend, an Australian human rights lawyer. He tried but failed to help another family whose boy was sexually abused in detention. As he calls them “my family”, the lawyer’s emotionally porous borders reveal the source of his own post-traumatic stress and regret.

A former Red Cross worker Katie Green performs strongly, detailing the hardest job she ever has had – working as a Melbourne-based refugee caseworker. She starts by giving voice to words of Afghan asylum seeker Khodayar Amini, who set fire to himself as his bridging visa was about to revoked. She then relays the tragi-comedy of going through a carwash on her way to the airport with an Aldi bag stuffed with $30,000 worth of notes, divided into envelopes for the 70 asylum seekers whose arrival in Melbourne the department had just given Red Cross notice of.

It’s an emotional and, at times, difficult show to watch. It’s also hard to imagine a more important topic for theatre to tackle right now. It might seem churlish to take issue with the dramatic structure of the play – one where Mahdi the human being, for all his energy and likeability, is squeezed somewhere between the Immigration Department’s criminal narrative, and the heroic halo refugee advocates want to place on his head. Green recounts an awkwardly didactic story of Mahdi’s visit to Sydney’s Sculpture by the Sea, where he is horrified to see local men pretending to eat out of a vagina sculpture. In this sense, Mahdi’s character on stage seems unable to live as he may want to as a human being: as a complex, ordinarily flawed individual, someone with the sort of freedom that he – and we – might really want to fight for.

There is a Q@A- style session at the end of the show. Stay for the spoken word artists, Bilal Hafda and Iman Etri, emerging from the audience to cleverly and powerfully subvert the ‘reclaim Australia’ refrain. And PTY doesn’t leave you hanging: the company gives the audience concrete actions to address the worsening situation for asylum seekers. In a world where millions are glued to reality television shows depicting faux detentions, sadistic big brothers, made-up survival games and confected deprivations on glossy islands, this show gives us the real thing.

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Tribunal is at Carriageworks until 21 January as part of the Sydney Festival 

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