March 11, 2019

Adelaide Festival – Harrowing account of lives in limbo

by Leila Hekmatnia, Keivan Sarreshteh
Verbatim Theatre Group
AC Arts Main Theatre
March 7. Duration 75 minutes.

Devised and performed by the Iranian Verbatim Theatre Group from Tehran, Manus tells the stories of eight asylum seekers leaving persecution and personal danger in Iran, and the events leading to indefinite incarceration on Nauru and then, Manus Island in PNG.

Director, researcher and performer, Nazanin Sahamizadeh is the company’s driving force and the text for Manus has been gathered from her mobile phone interviews and WhatsApp exchanges directly with internees. This was facilitated by Behrouz Boochani, the Iranian-Kurdish journalist and poet, whose vivid account of his life on Manus, No Friend but the Mountains, also written on WhatsApp, won the prestigious Victorian Prize for Literature in January.

The eight excellent performers, three women and five men, wait quietly for the audience to arrive. Then, fleetingly bathed in harsh spotlights, they step out of the black curtained surround of the stage and, in Persian with English surtitles, begin their narratives. Each is carrying a bright red jerry can, depicting meagre belongings, or a floatation device, or later, fuel for protest.

They stand, or sit, facing us, delivering threads of language that weave tragedy. These are educated people with careers and families. People like us, suffering danger, violence, medical neglect, self-harm, and harrowing deaths. “We ruined ourselves,” one says, “We came here to be ruined.” “The first question they ask us is : ‘Do you want to kill yourself ?’“ And, confrontingly, for its first ever audience in this country – “Manus is run by Australia.”

This work is compelling in its quiet veracity; people talking directly of their hopes for better, deceived by smugglers, then detained in timeless limbo.

Behrouz Boochani, powerfully represented in his absence by Ehsan Bayatfar, is commandingly present in words. His poem, describing climbing a tree and threatening to jump unless the authorities play Mozart, crystallises the human struggle for recognition, dignity and truth. This is stark, matter-of-fact, and shaming theatre.

“Harrowing account of lives in limbo”, The Australian, March 11, 2019, p.15.

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