With the election upon us, it’d be pretty hard to be more politically relevant than the play Water, currently on the boards at the State Theatre Company.
The Black Swan production tackles one of the most divisive and controversial issues in Australia today: our harsh treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.
Playwright Jane Bodie developed her story over a couple of years (she had no idea it would run during the federal election), looking to explore the ramifications of our nation’s refugee policies, implemented by a has-been WA politician. He and his rather dysfunctional family are now suffering the consequences.
Act One opens at a holiday house on an island in WA (loosely based on Molloy Island in the Blackwood River near Augusta, according to Bodie), with Beth (Glenda Linscott), a long-suffering, now embittered mother and wife, preparing a celebratory roast chicken dinner for the tribe.
Her husband Peter (Igor Sas), palpably edgy, distractedly busies himself around the bush property, occasionally muttering puzzling stanzas from the English Romantic poets (a rarity on Molloy Island, even on a good day).
A once powerful politician in charge of immigration and border security, Peter is celebrating his birthday, or earnestly trying to. Having tumbled from favour with his own party and relegated to the political dung heap, he’s fled to his island refuge – even selling the family pad in Nedlands from under his daughters’ sneakers.
It seems the benighted pollie has been sidelined for over-stepping the mark with draconian immigration policies, even drifting outside international law, and now may be headed for The Hague for crimes against humanity. He’s at the bottom of the popularity stick.
By the way, his government also approved a desalination plant on the family’s beloved island, driving the local bird population to the brink of annihilation, so his is a government of environmental dunderheads, too.
Her husband’s fall from grace has Beth in a decidedly twitchy state (you could cut the domestic angst with a Georg Jensen cheese knife). Her nerves are frayed and she’s hitting the local plonk with abandon.
Barely holding things together she tries to preserve domestic decorum as family members congregate at the island hideout. The phone is taken off the hook, presumably to fend off abuse and the media; and there are even armed guvvie goons at the island ferry ramp – further evidence Peter is persona non grata.
Daughter Emma (Amy Matthews), a vaguely supercilious lawyer, arrives first at the family hacienda and enters into a dimly competitive mother-daughter tête-à-tête, friendly but cynical, in the thoroughly modern genre.
Then out of the blue arrives their feistier, single-minded, activist daughter Joey (Emily Rose Brennan). She says she has just returned from deepest Africa, and is accompanied by an uninvited dinner guest, a chap called Yize (Richard Maganga).
It is clear Yize is not quite what Joey’s parents expect in the ideal beau. A reasonable analogy might be Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
Yize’s legality in the Lucky Country is questionable and it transpires he has a giant bone to pick with a certain former immigration minister. No, he didn’t come for Beth’s famous roast chicken after all, or to celebrate a milestone in Peter’s now pear-shaped life.
His unanticipated presence goes down like a stink bomb in the living room and a frazzled Beth tries to send the young couple packing, but to no avail.
Yize’s harrowing tale of woe and heartbreak, in which his family members are lost at sea on their quest for a new life in Australia, are blasted at the hapless family patriarch, whose immigration modus operandi was clearly one of out of sight, out of mind.
“They recovered thirteen bodies in the water, just off the coast of Australia, thirteen women and children,” chastises Yize. “You made an example of them, to stop them, you made an example of their lives, to prove a point.”
His grim tidings stun the family (particularly Beth, who leaps for another bot of Chardy) as all roads of blame lead back to pop’s egregious transgressions.
Like many of his ilk in the long history of odious government policies and inhumanity, Peter says he was only obeying orders and wails “It was policy!”
Bodie creates a delectable irony via her scenario of a traumatised, yet angry, immigrant confronting an entitled politician under his own roof. The premise is made all the more credible because, if anyone is capable of exposing dastardly government injustice, it is an headstrong family member like Joey.
Act Two finds us on another island circa 1921. Welcome to Ellis Island, New York, USA, the immigrant processing facility for east coast arrivals.
We join a detained elderly Australian couple (in bloomers and suspenders, yet strangely recognisable from the open-plan living-dining room on ‘Molloy’) on the bleak isle following an attempt to leave Australia for a better life in the Land of the Free.
But they find it is nothing of the sort, taking umbrage at how they are treated by Yankee officialdom. As they are interrogated and humiliated by US immigration functionaries, it is revealed they’ve fled a dreadful drought in Oz, but haven’t escaped tragedy.
About now a sense of timeless karma starts to pervade the stage. In other words, just about all people seeking succour and asylum can expect to be treated with contempt – even a couple of true blue, dinky-di Aussie farmers.
We then jump back in the theatrical time machine and are whisked to 1905 Queensland, where the daughter of a plantation owner and a Kanaka cane field worker meet in secret.
We soon become aware of a complex and hidden relationship between the two, and their bunkhouse repartee reveals the dark history of Australia’s own slave trade (yes, there was one), now conveniently forgotten in the fog of time and government cover-ups, primarily British.
The play finishes up back in the present with a moving, but slightly empty, finale in the bosom of our tormented WA clan, exiled on their own island by an unforgiving and heartless system, and Peter’s politically-motivated treatment of boat people. Ironic visions of Manus and Nauru seem to waft through the stage lights.
Three families, three eras, three immigration stories of hardship, sadness and unnecessary cruelty – all involving either travelling across water or being imprisoned by it.
Water is a well-written and conceptualised play that connects many aspects of the history of Australian immigration, transportation and the inhumane, often illegal, treatment of innocent and desperate people who we, through international conventions, are obliged to take in and help. But often don’t.
It explores guilt, history, morals and the dark depths of human conduct in dealing with people less fortunate than ourselves.
As the bows are taken, the Studio Underground audience is left pondering how history might judge Australia for its current immigration policies, widely regarded as among the most callous and insensitive in the world. We suspect, not too kindly.
Cast: Emily Rose Brennan, Glenda Linscott, Richard Maganga, Amy Mathews, Igor Sas
Creatives: Director: Emily McLean, Set & Costume Designer: Fiona Bruce, Lighting Designer: Lucy Birkinshaw, Sound Designer/Composer: Dr Clint Bracknell
The season runs until Sunday May 26, in the Studio Underground at the State Theatre Centre of WA. More information and bookings at www.bsstc.com.au