Set on Christmas Island detention centre, Barren Ground opens with the very high profile Siev 221 shipwreck at Flying Fish Cove in 2010 and takes us through to the end of 2018 when the centre was declared closed – though not for long it’s since turned out.
The third and final First Seen work-in-progress at The Street for 2020, Canberra-based playwright Helen Machalias’ new work merges elements of the plot, dialogue and characters of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with media reports and first-hand accounts of refugees on Christmas Island.
“I’m calling it a talking back to The Tempest rather than an adaptation,” Machalias told Canberra Weekly.
The work centres on four characters similar to those who appear in The Tempest, three of whom are Iranian refugees, the fourth a Christmas Island local of Chinese-Malay heritage.
Machalias pitched Barren Ground to The Street last December and wrote it between April and July this year.
“When I pitched the concept of Barren Ground to the Street Theatre in late 2018, I couldn’t have imagined that in 2020 Christmas Island would again be in the news for being reopened,” Machalias said.
“It’s a play that draws upon the timeless themes of The Tempest, but I also hope will have particular potency with The Street’s audiences because of its currency.”
She said while developing the work, her interest in Christmas Island has led to it effectively becoming the fifth character in the play.
“It’s a place with a fascinating history … When I started researching Christmas Island, it was occupied by the Japanese in WWII, there’s a mine there, it’s got that detention centre aspect to it obviously, but it’s also really promoted as a tourist destination as well.
“It’s got incredible natural beauty, there’s a huge mass crab migration that happens there every year that’s a symbol in the play of human migration as well and those parallels,” she said.
“That magical setting of The Tempest I thought translated well to Christmas Island and that contrast between the brutality and the natural beauty,” Machalias said.
The work is also a pressing, current exploration of the plight of asylum seekers in Australia.
“Because I started work as a journalist, I’m always interested in what’s kept secret, and there’s a lot of secrecy around offshore detention and the way that mainland Australians’ access to the refugee population is controlled,” Machalias said.
“That’s got the effect of deliberately trying to dehumanise the people in those centres.”
Machalias said the work grew from her own interest in sharing the stories of refugees, but that she developed it conscious of the fact she doesn’t have a refugee background herself.
“I’m good at interpreting things through Shakespeare and there was a similarity with The Tempest around both stories starting with a catastrophic shipwreck and the main character of Prospero being someone who had been in a powerful position, exiled from his homeland,” she said.
“That was a really rich starting point, and the more I researched and looked into Christmas Island and the Tempest itself, the more parallels I could see.”
Machalias said the entirely online-driven development process has been an interesting learning experience.
“You need to embrace the excitement and the challenge of it, and really have a sense of adventure,” she said.
“All the creative team I’ve met so far have an interest in exploring what an online Zoom performance means for them but also for the audience.
“I’ve had the experience now as an audience member seeing a few readings on Zoom and I’ve been surprised by how engrossed I’ve been in the work; I haven’t felt distanced as an audience member, which surprised me.
Machalias’ Barren Ground will be broadcast live from The Street via Zoom on Friday 4 September 5pm; register via thestreet.org.au