‘Every Australian should know what the government’s bureaucratic language both conceals and reveals. We should know it intimately, in our skin, in our dreams.’ Alison Croggon on Verbatim Theatre Group’s Manus
In Ursula Le Guin’s famous short story The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas, she imagines a beautiful, prosperous city that is holding a summer festival. This city is a true utopia: there are no hierarchies, no kings, no slaves, no armies. An ideal city, in which its cultured, prosperous citizens live in perpetual happiness.
However, this abundance and bliss has its darkness. When its citizens are old enough, maybe at about 12, they are taken to a dungeon beneath the city and shown the truth: that their happiness and freedom depend on the endless torment of a child who is kept in darkness, filth and misery. No one may even say one kind word to relieve its torment. If the child is freed, “in that day and hour all the prosperity and beauty and delight of Omelas would wither and be destroyed. Those are the terms.”
So, in the festival city of Adelaide – which is by no means as ideal as Omelas, because homeless people sleep on the streets, because it is founded on the dispossession of the Kaurna people, because poverty and want are visible even on its shining surfaces – I go to the AC Arts Theatre to witness our version of “the terms”.
According to our government, our security and prosperity depend on the misery of many others. These others must be incarcerated, dispossessed, exiled, tormented and broken if we are to maintain our “way of life”. These, our government tells us, are “the terms”.
Manus, from the Iranian company Verbatim Theatre Group, is one of the most powerful works of political theatre that I’ve seen. Leila Hekmatnia and Keyvan Sarreshteh’s text is constructed from verbatim reports from asylum seekers imprisoned on Nauru and Manus islands, as part of the Federal Government’s policy of deterrence against refugees who arrive by sea.
The dramaturgy is structured around testimony from Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish journalist now imprisoned on Manus whose book No Friend but the Mountain recently won the major prize in the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards. Boochani acts as a narrative device, recording and reporting other voices, other experiences, that are retold through the bodies of eight actors.
Anyone who has followed the terrible history of our off-shore camps since Howard’s “Pacific Solution” will already know these stories. If you’ve read the Senate Inquiries, the UN reports, the media stories or even Boochani’s book, none of what’s revealed here will come as a surprise. Under Nazanin Sahamizadeh’s stark, intelligent direction, Manus demonstrates the power of theatre to make these stories humanly visible, to embody them in a way that brings home the viscerality of human suffering.
The performance takes place on Amir Hossein Davani’s dark, bare stage, floored with black plastic, minimally lit by Ali Kouzehgar. The only props are red jerry cans which are employed as seats or walls or, in the final brilliant scene, as a miniature stage. The eight performers simply tell us their stories, from terrifying sea journeys to the misery and mundane cruelty of the prisons that drives children to sew up their lips in protest and makes people lose their minds.
Documentary footage projected onto the actors’ bodies punctuates the narratives: Scott Morrison as Immigration Minister telling refugees “If you choose not to go home then you will spend a very, very long time here,”; footage of the riots on Manus Island, during which Reza Berati, as 23 year old Iranian asylum seeker, was murdered; children playing behind chainlink fences. This is remarkably effective, foregrounding how impersonal government legislation is inscribed onto actual living flesh.
This sense of embodiment is intensified by an ingenious stage effect. Every now and then there’s a flash of lightning, which signals a fall of rain. We watch the bodies get wet, we watch people trying to catch water in their jerry cans, we feel the claustrophobia and heat as the rain passes, leaving a background noise of water dripping onto plastic. The show finishes with its single theatrical flourish, an account of Boochani climbing into a tree in the midst of the prison camp and demanding to hear Mozart. It’s a glimpse of freedom that’s at once absurd, exhilarating and beautiful.
But somehow this glimpse of beauty makes the whole more unforgiving. I don’t know if it’s worse if you already know the stories: the account of the death of Omid Masoumali, who died in agony of negligent medical treatment after he was burned, was almost unbearable to watch, and for me this was intensified by the memories of the media coverage. But as an audience member, I felt that watching was the least I could do: an hour’s psychic discomfort in a theatre is nowhere near the misery that’s inflicted in our name.
There are a few moments of another kind of discomfort: the contempt that’s sometimes expressed by the refugees for the Indigenous people of New Guinea, who are described as “cannibals”, but who are as much victims of the colonial policies of Australia as the refugees are. For them, Manus Island is not the “end of the world”, but their home, and they too are dispossessed and exploited. But that merely opens up another layer of these catastrophic policies: empires have always ruled by dividing those they make suffer.
I also had the uncomfortable thought that, by exposing the brutality of our refugee policies to Iranians, this company is doing what our government desires. Our Immigration Ministers want everyone to know exactly how cruel we are, how unjust we are, how pettily punitive.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that these atrocities shouldn’t be exposed. Every Australian should know what the government’s bureaucratic language both conceals and reveals. We should know it intimately, in our skin, in our dreams. Each of us should be seared with this shame. None of us has the right to say, this isn’t Australia. It is Australia. It’s been Australia all along. And it’s time we did some reckoning.
Manus asks the question, and asks it hard. Maybe we should leave behind this illusion we carry with us, this Omelas we like to think we inhabit, and find another way of being.
They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.
Manus, written by Leila Hekmatnia and Keyvan Sarreshteh, directed by Nazanin Sahamizadeh. Set designer by Amir Hossein Davani, lighting design by Ali Kouzehgar, music by Behrouz Seifi. Performed by Ebrahim Azizi, Ehsan Bayatfar, Ali Pouya Ghasemi, Hana Kamkar, Hamid Reza Mohammadi, Nasrin Nakisa, Nazanin Sahamizadeh and Misagh Zare. Verbatim Theatre Group, AC Arts Theatre, Adelaide Festival. Closed.