Vox Motus’ Flight is a powerful artwork about child asylum seekers that drives home global realities, says young critic Gully Thompson
Dioramas, still figures displayed motionlessly in a scene, might seem to be the province of your early school years: of landscape replication projects, presentations showcasing the science behind volcanoes or prehistoric Earth. But would you consider the classic style of diorama for theatre? As it turns out, play it right and you have an immersive, beautiful and heart-wrenching piece on your hands.
The set up of Flight, from UK company Vox Motus at the Melbourne International Arts Festival, is mysterious and intriguing. Led through the labyrinth that is Art Centre Melbourne’s underground rehearsal space, you are taken into a waiting room, where one by one you’re led to small viewing booths. Initially you’re not told very much about the performance, only how it will work. I feel that this is a good thing; it adds to the sensation of not knowing what’s going on, which is very important for this show.
The story follows two young boys, Kabir and Aryan, who venture across Europe seeking asylum. While the characters are fictitious, the book on which Flight is based, Hinterland, is constructed around interviews the author, journalist Caroline Brothers, conducted with refugees and asylum seekers.
Essentially Flight is “diorama meets comic book meets soundscape.” The story is told through a kind of sushi-train that rolls different diorama panels around to your booth, each one lighting up in the order of the story. A narration track with music – sometimes serene, sometimes confronting and overpowering, often unsettling and disturbing – is played through headphones.
The result is simply superb. The diorama panels act as literal windows into these characters’ lives. The earth-shattering soundscape is brilliantly constructed; as every new diorama panel lights up, it coincides with the sound. A scene in a boat switches back and forth from struggling underwater, sounds muffled, to coming up for air, hearing the terrifying sounds of others suffering alongside. This sound is terrifying, so unimaginable, yet so real. You might think that, because it’s only still images and music and narration, this piece would not be as powerful as live performance, but somehow I think it’s more effective.
What is it that makes Flight so real, so tense, so terrifying? The creativity of the dioramas, seen through the eyes of the boys, is part of this power. Police officers and border patrol are portrayed as giant walking seagulls; they scream demands, in the fashion of your typical seagull and act unpredictably. It brings home the experience of dealing with authorities who will never sympathise with what you’ve been through, how frightening they are to people who don’t understand their language. We see European cities through the eyes of those who have never imagined anything like them. Tall buildings warp, looming in a surreal and uncanny way; voices and cheers are loud and intimidating.
Another reason for Flight’s power is the single-person experience. You don’t see any audience members reacting alongside you; everyone in the room experiences this alone, just you and the two boys. This makes it feel like a very personal experience. You and you alone have been permitted to witness this story. You and you alone walk with them.
This level of up-front intensity communicates the reality of a global situation. It doesn’t just tell us what’s going on, it puts us inside the story. It doesn’t allow you to ignore the real gravity of the state of the world: we are forced to confront the harsh truth. Its story is brutal, yet remains heart-warming and hopeful, showing the resilience of these children. Although it’s fictional you also know, in the back of your mind, that this story is real. So many people suffer these things, trying to find somewhere to be safe, and Flight honours their lives.
Beyond raising awareness, Flight is a very moving character story. The spirit of the plot is not about the impossible obstacles these boys face; while that is a key element, the essence of the show is watching them stay hopeful and move on. As the title suggests, they dream of taking flight. Even when their situation has hit rock-bottom, these two boys never show any sign of giving up hope. Flight is a show about terrible challenges and losses, but it’s also about overcoming challenges and dealing with our demons.
Flight is a celebration. Not just of this strange yet beautiful art style, but of challenge and resilience. Of letting these powerful, intense, shockingly true stories get heard. Of the sheer determination and hope it takes to save yourself and those you love, and of how sometimes even that isn’t enough. Flight, a celebration which deserves to be celebrated, soars to dizzy heights.
Flight, based on the novel Hinterland by Caroline Brothers, adapted by Oliver Emanuel. Director and co-designer Jamie Harrison, director Candice Edmunds, co-designer and lead model maker Rebecca Hamilton, composer and sound designer Mark Melville, lighting designer Simon Wilkinson, character artist Sav Scatola, storyboard artist Kenneth MacLeod. Performed by Nalini Chetty, Farshid Rokey, Emun Elliott, ensemble Waleed Akhtar, Maryam Hamidi, Chris Jack, Robert Jack and Adura Onashile. Rehearsal Room, Arts Centre Melbourne, as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 21. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Audio Described version available on request