Venue: Bondi Pavilion Theatre (Bondi NSW), May 29 – Jun 21, 2014
Playwright: Benedict Hardie
Director: Benedict Hardie
Actors: Susie Youssef / William Erimya / Emily Rose Brennan / Luke Joseph Ryan
Image by Zakarij Kaczmarek
One of the exciting facets of theatre is the way it is able to deal with social issues. The stage provides a membrane of safety, where artists can venture into dangerous territory, and say things that are controversial, or even, fictional. In this unique space of expression, the audience is able to examine ideas with their own free will, and perhaps have opinions swayed, or maybe come to new realisations about the world.
Benedict Hardie’s The Boat People is a script that we desperately need. It tackles subjects that are prominent in news and politics, but approaches it from an artistic perspective. What results is a discussion about themes that we care passionately about, but unpacked in an unconventional way. Its story and characters present to us a refreshing way at looking at Australia’s obsession with asylum seekers and our ever-changing stance on immigration policies. It is neither journalistic reportage nor realistic documentary. It is imaginative, and in its “what ifs”, we are able to observe and judge our personal responses to some of the ideas brought up by the work. Hardie’s writing is sardonic and sophisticated. There are surprises everywhere, and its characters connect deeply with the way we look at ourselves today. Hardie’s direction however, is slightly lacking. The pace of the piece misses a certain fluidity. There are many gear changes that occur from constant shifts in comic tone, which is conceptually exciting, but experientially, a little awkward. Our emotions and attention are prevented from becoming more deeply invested, which might be intellectually interesting, but in reality, quite frustrating. We like the characters and want to feel more for them.
Susie Youssef’s performance as Sarah is extraordinarily centred and strong. Playing a character that is unable to anchor herself morally, Youssef is surprisingly authentic. She presents a truth that we relate to, one that appeals to our humanity; the part of us that lives in shades of grey, and where life forces us to move within these shades, refusing to let us hold on to black or white regardless of our desire for certainty and convenient truths. The level of conviction in Youssef’s work is impressive. The confidence she brings to a role that is characterised by its power and wealth is very persuasive indeed.
Karl is played by William Erimya, who is memorable for his immense affability. Karl is absolutely adorable, and Erimya’s performance is hilarious, but his final scene attempts to shock, only to leave us bewildered and unconvinced. Melanie is another role who goes through a confusing transition, but Emily Rose Brennan’s performance is engaging and enjoyable. Brennan’s work is precise, with an exquisite polish, and she brings an intense energy that is deceptively subtle. Luke Joseph Ryan is the live wire of the group. He is outlandish, buoyant and effervescent, giving us a lot of silliness that contrasts effectively with the gravity of the work. He does seem to be slightly detached from the ensemble who are comparatively subdued, but we do catch glimpses of great chemistry when situations are conducive.
The production is designed intelligently and efficiently. Michael Hankin’s set is simple but arresting. His construction of “windows” is a stroke of genius. Sound designer and composer Benny Davis makes us laugh with pop music made “ethnic”. Costumes by Elizabeth Gadsby helps tell the story well, and her work for Karl and Melanie are particularly attractive but Sarah’s stature requires further finesse.
The complexity of The Boat People is unapologetic and essential. Hardie’s writing resists simplification, so we are forced to grapple with the difficulty of issues at hand. Art is not always about truths, but this show hits the nail on the head. The accuracy at which it portrays contemporary Australian beliefs is staggering, and the results are not always easy to digest. Theatre must not always be a walk in the park, and on this occasion, the ride is bumpy, for good and bad.