Culture

Theatre

‘Manus’: troubling and obligatory viewing

By Steve Dow
An Iranian play brings stories of Australia’s offshore detention centres to the Adelaide Festival

Actor Ehsan Bayatfar as Iranian-Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani in Manus. Photograph by Mohammad Sadegh Zarjooyan. 

On a darkened stage, the sounds of waves crashing and rainfall accompany projections of asylum-seeker boats. Five male and three female actors playing real-life refugees in Australian immigration detention centres on the islands of Manus and Nauru give voice to verbatim recollections of the rape, riots, suicide and self-harm they have witnessed.

Manus, the play, presented in Persian with English surtitles and created by Iran’s Verbatim Theatre Group, is coming to Australia for the Adelaide Festival (with performances from March 7 to 10). The bearded actor Ehsan Bayatfar plays the Iranian-Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani. He is the only character to give his full name in this “narrative documentary” play, first staged in the Qashqai Hall of Tehran’s City Theatre for two months in 2017, followed by a tour to Kerala, India and Chittagong, Bangladesh.

The real Boochani fled Iran in 2013 and, after being intercepted en route to Australia by the Australian Navy, was sent to Manus, where he has been held since. When the work premiered, he posted on Facebook that its director, Nazanin Sahamizadeh, is a “great artist that was sensitive to the inhumanity of our situation and I have deep respect for her”. Boochani supplied information about life in the camp and helped convince other asylum seekers to be interviewed for the play, as did Hossein Babaahmadi, a former Manus detainee who returned to Iran.

Sahamizadeh first contacted Boochani by WhatsApp in 2015 after reading about Manus on the internet. Shocked at what she was told, Sahamizadeh tells me from Tehran that she decided to broaden the play beyond Manus when Boochani recounted how a fellow detainee had self-harmed because his girlfriend, held on Nauru, had been raped. “We expect Australia as a first-[world] country to care more about human rights,” she says.

The play’s creation and staging in Tehran was no small feat, given media restrictions in Iran, the sensitivity of its theocratic regime to the issue of its citizens fleeing to claim asylum, and that the country itself is regularly criticised for human rights abuses. Officials from Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and advisers to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani attended a performance of the play, however, as did the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ representative in Iran, Sri Lankan-born Sivanka Dhanapala. Sahamizadeh says that Dhanapala told her that Manus showed “the tragedy of our time”.

Many audience members in Tehran were “affected and surprised” about the “terrible conditions” in Australia’s offshore detention centres, says Sahamizadeh. “They did not know anything about this before,” she says. “Australia had been known, not only to us Iranians but also to the whole world, as a friend of refugees.”

All the actors who will be performing in Australia are from Iran, including five from the original production, plus three newly cast actors. Adelaide Festival co-artistic director Neil Armfield says that for Australian audiences, watching Manus is a “shaming experience … to see these tales told in Persian, which we’re watching through surtitles, of the experience of men, women and children on Nauru and on Manus”.

Does Sahamizadeh want Australian audiences to feel shame? “It’s not my intention, but I agree with Neil. I just show some people’s experience in those places. When the Australian audiences see these terrible conditions it is so probable that they will feel shaming. We had an Australian audience in Tehran that after they saw the play told me: ‘I’m sorry [for what we did to] your compatriots.’”

On stage, the actors describe violent events – notably the brutal murder of asylum seeker Reza Barati, 23, who in February 2014 was repeatedly beaten with a piece of wood with a nail on the end of it, before a large rock was dropped on his head. A Papua New Guinea court found two men guilty of murdering Berati.

“Hearing or watching a little of the violence that is being tolerated by people can be useful and for audience understanding of the amount of hardship taken by refugees,” says Sahamizadeh. “This is the reason that many of them attempt suicide.”

Does Sahamizadeh believe it that it’s possible for art to change ordinary minds, and that ordinary people in turn will lobby for change in government policy?

“I believe that people can force the government to change wrong policies,” she says. “[But] it is not easy and takes a long time. And during this time many people are [becoming] victims …

“Seeing this show [should be] obligatory for all Australian decision-makers. Maybe by watching this play, they would put themselves in refugees’ shoes.”

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.

@dowsteve

Actor Ehsan Bayatfar as Iranian-Kurdish journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani in Manus. Photograph by Mohammad Sadegh Zarjooyan. 

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