Writer: Zana Fraillon
Director: Esther Richardson
As The Bone Sparrow opens, we’re treated to a powerful wordless scene of quite unutterable and exquisite beauty. Through movement, projection and puppetry, we see Rohingya refugees fleeing Burma having had their citizenship stripped from them overnight and having lost everything. They reach Australia but are not welcome; rather they are placed in a detention centre in the middle of nowhere, behind wire fences and rolls of barbed wire. It is in this grim place, in a tent, that Subhi is born. And who is Subhi? He’s a limbo child, born in Australia but not Australian, a member of the Rohingya people, but who has never known life outside the fences nor in his native land, Burma, who measures his growth not in feet and inches but in ‘fence diamonds’. Subhi lives with his older sister, Queenie and his mother. His father, a poet mistrusted by the government, has been left behind. So it’s little surprise that he pesters everyone for their story and draws them as he desperately tries to find his identity and the father he never knew.
When Subhi’s best friend Eli is deemed to be grown-up and is moved to the section where the male adults reside, Eli and Queenie decide that the time has come for protest; they smuggle in a camera and are able to smuggle out pictures showing their conditions. At the same time, Subhi meets Jimmie, a similarly lost girl from outside. She has lost her mother and lives with her father who cannot make the break from a place haunted by her. The only link Jimmie has with her mother is her mother’s books of stories of how their family came to be, but which, ironically, Jimmie cannot read: she is dyslexic. And so, they provide mutual support, Subhi reads her stories to her (which, memorably, are played out behind him with elegance and fluidity by mask-wearing cast members) and she provides some context to his existence. But the insurrection is gaining pace, something has to change; and so it does.
This is a remarkable piece. One cannot help but empathise with Subhi, played with assurance by Yaamin Chowdhury. Chowdhury shows us Subhi’s confusion and needs as he ages. We completely understand that a plastic duck can talk to him in Shakespeare’s voice acting as conscience and confidante alike. His youthful exuberance is combined well with the uncertainty of life in the centre. His friendship with Jimmie (Mary Roubos) is perfectly pitched.
Roubos shows us a girl struggling to understand just how another can be treated in the way Subhi and the others are. Awkward and naïve, we warm to her simple joy in the small things while feeling for her as she tries to cope with the loss of her mother, a loss her father seems to be struggling with. Roubos brings us all of the subtleties of Jimmie’s character. A superb performance.
Siobhan Athwal brings us Queenie, the disgruntled elder sister who sees the injustices of their plight clearly, full of pent-up rage. She, too, is growing up and we see the conflicts within her as she needs to assume adult roles. Athwal has a wonderfully mobile face that communicates her character’s feelings well. Elmi Rashid Elmi brings us Eli, Subhi’s best friend. His caring nature as he tries to protect Subhi is clear, as is his own uncertainty as he moves on in the camp, an uncertainty he only conceals with partial success.
The forces of law and order are brought to us by Harvey (Devesh Kishore) and Beaver (Mackenzie Scott) as centre guards. Harvey is paternal towards Subhi, and clearly has the best interests of the residents at heart; Beaver is mistrustful and boorish after a bad experience which he has never quite adequately dealt with and which Scott demonstrates in his manner towards the refugees and his own barely concealed anger.
Jummy Faruq performs much of the puppetry. She effortlessly brings the puppets to life, especially Subhi’s companion the plastic duck, with delicacy and skill.
The whole is set within a grim area designed by Miriam Nabarro. Consisting of large, ever-present, fence panels that are hinged to allow the action to move around the centre, one moment acting as barriers, the next, opening to allow some contact, it is an integral part of the show, complemented by the lighting design of Ben Cowens and soundscape of Arun Ghosh. And despite being long, the story never sags, testament to the skill of adaptor, S. Shakthidharan and the confident direction of Esther Richardson – both clearly born out of an appreciation of the story and the importance of story-telling.
This is a piece that will live long in the memories of those fortunate enough to see it. Its importance lies not just in raising awareness of the treatment of the most vulnerable – although that is important and especially apposite right now – but also in looking at how we grow, how we fit in, who we are. As Jimmie says, ‘Stories are what matter, right?’
Runs Until 26 March 2022 and on tour