Reviews/Perth Festival/Theatre

Sail a mile in their boats

18 February 2021

David Zampatti finds Children of the Sea a moving but chilling reminder of the human cost of Australia’s shameful handling of sea-borne refugees.

Children of the Sea, Perth Festival, Encounter / Performing Lines WA ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 17 February, 2021 ·

On rare occasions, the intentions of a piece of theatre, its conception and the way it has been brought to the stage have a kind of nobility that demands you apply a whole different set of criteria to the performance you witness than you would otherwise.

Children of the Sea, the tragic and stirring story of a boatload of refugees making their way from Indonesia to Australia – many of them mere children – is one of those rare plays.

It takes place mainly on the Tuk Tuk, a barely seaworthy fishing boat crammed full of the hopeful and the desperate. The lone crew member abandons them when the boat’s engine breaks down, leaving the human cargo to fend for themselves in the Timor Sea.

The only advice he gives them as he flees is to jump into the water when the Australian Navy intercepts the boat, thus forcing the sailors to rescue them. It’s a chilling reminder of the dark days of inhuman neglect and the sheer bastardry of the Australian governments of the time (this year, it’s worth noting, is the 20th anniversary of the Tampa affair and the notorious “children overboard” scandal).

The four children of the story, Rami (Harry Hamzat) from the Congo, Noor (Maniya Amin Dehghan) from Iran, Hawa (the livewire Happyness Yasini) from Burundi, and the central character, Mir (Satchen Lucido), from Balochistan in Pakistan, not only have to defend themselves but also lead the rest of the helpless travellers.

Back in Balochistan, Ammi (Manjula Radha Krishnan) and her son Mir (Satchen Lucido). Photo: Dan Grant

We sometimes return to Balochistan and Mir’s family – his gentle, courageous mother Ammi (Manjula Radha Krishnan) and brave brother Gibran (Abimanjou Mathivannan) – as the horrendous events that forced him to make the perilous journey to Australia unfold.

Some details are particularly chilling: even on these floating hell-holes there are first and second-class passengers – the “VIPs” paying as much as three times more than the others and demanding priority and privileges even when lives are at stake.

There’s a recurring image of the cheap luggage containing people’s only possessions guarded on deck or jettisoned overboard, a reminder of the sudden and uncertain departures for millions around the globe.

Children of the Sea is the culmination of two years’ research and theatre-making by the Indian-Australian playwright, director and performer, Jay Emmanuel. It’s performed by an ethnically diverse cast, many still in their early teens, some child-refugees or the children of refugees, most without formal acting training or experience.

Emmanuel has supported them with an excellent, highly-credentialled creative team including the designer Brian Woltjen, acting coach Phil Thomson and vocal coach Julia Moody. And he has recruited the legendary singer-songwriter Kavisha Mazzella and percussionist Pavan Kumar Hari to lead the music and singing that run through the spine of the performance.

It’s a daunting challenge to bring such a mix of ages, talents and experience together, and while there are some excellent performances, there are times when they are hesitant and stilted – but what might otherwise seem shortcomings become some of the play’s great strengths.

The actors’ sincerity and the genuine commitment of the whole creative team shine through the entire enterprise, amplifying the play’s emotion and insight.

We watched events like the voyage of the Tuk Tuk, we saw the little heads bobbing in fierce, fatal waters, we heard the grim statistics and the pontification of politicians and pundits.

But we didn’t really know. We didn’t sail a mile in their boats.

So if Children of the Sea helps us to know more, and hold those who took those journeys in our minds and hearts, then that’s something Jay Emmanuel and everyone in this production can be proud of.

Children of the Sea is at the Subiaco Arts Centre until Saturday, 20 February, 2021.

Pictured top: On board the dodgy fishing boat in ‘Children of the Sea’ are Maniya Amin Dehghan, Harry Hamzat, Satchen Lucido, Happyness Yasini, Jordan Azor, and Manjula Radha Krishnan. Photo: Dan Grant

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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