The Village (La Boite and MDA Ltd)
La Boite Theatre, La Boite Studio
April 23 – May 5
Having not seen “The Village” as part of its 2017 sell-out premiere season, I anticipated that the work of ‘compelling real stories of refugees and people seeking asylum’ would be similar to experience of 2013’s “I am Here”. Reflectively, this was an incredible assumption, as each theatre work is different, just as each person’s resettlement story is unique. In “The Village” audience experiences are varied too, given how groups are split apart in an initial (deliberately) chaotic corral into smaller regroupings to progress separately through separate stations and stories of unique, but equally impacting sensibilities.
The La Boite collaboration with refugee resettlement agency MDA Ltd, immerses the audience at set-ups in the La Boite Studio and around the outside Parade Ground, and performers do a commendable job in competition with the resulting noise distractions. Still, nothing can divert focus from the engagement of the verbatim theatre of real-life stories on display, as evidenced by the young people sitting, for example, listening in absolute silent absorption to the personal story of mild-mannered Cievash Arean’s imprisonment and torture in Iran and escape across the border to Pakistan is disguise as a burqa-attired female.
Not every interaction is quite as passive, however. Performer/playwright Ngoc Phan evokes the physical and emotional experience of a two-day boat trip from Vietnam to a Malaysian refugee camp in the most cramped and confronting of conditions of a makeshift boat. And Joyce Taylor contextualises her experiences travelling with her mother and two brothers from Liberia to a Guinean refugee camp, engaging not just through hands-on demonstration of how to carry the water you may have waited hours in line for, but in the impact of her seemingly simple words about fearing the sound of RAAF flyovers at New Year’s Eve celebrations.
“The Village” has been created specifically with secondary students in mind, meaning that although it includes details of war, fear, fleeing and persecution for things such as politics, faith, culture and sexuality, there is also colour and music to its narratives, making it far-from-solemn, but still never trivialised in its presentation. Indeed, although some stories are more harrowing, such as that of young poet and film-maker, and Afghanistan-born, Arwin Arwin who was kidnapped by the Taliban before escaping to travel by boat to Brisbane when he was 17, there is an essential vibrancy to Silva Asal’s story of search for the safety of freedom of speech and expression, which is entertainingly told through invite of the audience in a makeshift tent souq.
“The Village” is a unique and powerful theatre experience that through its celebration of the stories of ordinary people in extraordinary situations, illustrates that power of hope and the realisation that although the presence of these groups is contentious in popular discourse, humanity doesn’t have to have political bias. Through its themes of diversity, belonging and the idea of home, it serves to showcase the cultural diversity of Australia through honouring the courage, strength and determination of the women, men and children who have made this country their new home.
It not only allows audience members opportunity to pause and appreciate that what we have is what thousands and millions of others dream of, but it shows that art does not necessarily have to be of rebellion. Theatre has a unique role in leading cultural conversations; by bringing minority performers and majority audiences together through works such as this, it can foster understanding and inclusion in the local community, which is especially important for young people who, it is apparent, do not know of Saddam Hussein beyond being a “South Park’ character.