The Bone Sparrow: suddenly in the spotlight

Pilot Theatre’s latest adaptation, with a subject suddenly thrown in to national attention, is strong all rounder carried in particular by their ever-innovative staging and one of the best individual performances I’ve seen.

One thing virtually every theatre company aspires to be is “current”, “urgent”, or one of the many other synonyms for topical. But, for all the lofty aspirations, this is surprisingly difficult to achieve. Most main stage productions are at least a year in planning. The issue that prompted you to commission a play is probably going to be long-since forgotten by the time it makes it to an audience. And in the event it is still being talked about, you are probably going to find yourself jostling for attention with another ten groups all saying the same thing as you. Nine times out of ten, you’re better off forgetting about trying to tap into trends and just do something that stands up in its own right. Unless, of course, you end up topical by accident, as happened here. When Pilot Theatre announced The Bone Sparrow (another back adaptation, this time with the original from Zena Fraillon and adapted by S.Shakthidharan), the topic of refugees was an ongoing issue but there was no particular thing bringing the matter to the fore. Now, however … well, I don’t need to tell you what changed.

The setting of The Bone Sparrow is quite far from home though. Priti Patel hasn’t exactly endeared herself to a suddenly refugee-sympathetic public, but few things are more notorious than the immigrant detention camps in Australia. Supporters of these camps will probably argue that Australia cannot be expected to single-handedly house half the world’s refugees, but a less charitable interpretation, as explored in this play, is that it’s a game of buck-passing. By trying to make your conditions for immigrants more infamous than the rest of Asia and Oceania, refugees will opt to go somewhere else instead, were it not for the fact that all other would-be safe countries are doing the same, and you get a race to the bottom. But this is not a comment piece on the merits of immigration policies, this is the place for a theatre review.

The central character of the story is Subhi. His family fled from persecution in Myanmar, but Subhi himself was born in a detention camp, and grown up whilst the authorities spend the next decade and a half. There are two guards who prominently feature in the story: one of them has worked how how to do his job whilst still treating everyone has human beings; the other one, however, is possibly a racist, definitely a bully – and, eventually, probably a psychopath too. Living standards vary with timing suspiciously coinciding with the visits of inspectors, with chicken and fruit salad for lunch one day, and porridge, porridge and more porridge the next. With nothing for anyone to do, unrest is brewing within the camp, but Subhi passes the time developing his wild storytelling imagination.

The thing that Pilot Theatre’s artistic director Esther Richardson is consistently good at doing is the staging – and not the same kind of staging either. One production might work on technical wizardry, another might use inspired imagery of a famous landmark, or it might work on something simple and striking, or even something that’s just functional but make to look good. This is no exception, and the obvious choice of a defining feature here is the chain link fences, designed by Miriam Nabarro. At various points in the story, the fences play a crucial role, but the rest of the time, the ever-present fences make a statement that you can never get away from them. As Subhi’s imagination grows more wild, the puppetry also grown in prominence, again used to great effect.

But let’s get back to the elephant in the room. This is a play on a sensitive political issue, and I don’t know what’s down to the novel and what’s down to the adaptation, it’s fair to say this play firmly picks a side. Which is fine. Plays should be allowed to say what they like, and if you don’t agree you are at liberty to not go, or say what the play is getting wrong, or both. However, whilst getting the approval of people who already agree with the message of the play is easy, if you want to make a difference – which I assume was the intention here – you have to be persuasive. Whilst acknowledging the other points of view in a play is by no means obligatory, it is often advisable. Beaver the bullying guard may well have no redeeming features, but he’s not going to see it that way, and we never see any indication of why he is what he is. The play I have in mind that did this well is Pilot’s recent production Noughts and Crosses. Whilst there isn’t exactly two sides to the story of whether racism is good or bad (even in an alternate world where the racial power is reversed), there was a lot of nuance. It was far from an unambiguous binary of goodies and baddies, and maybe the same treatment here – where the heroes have moral weaknesses and we understand what made the bad guys bad – would have strengthened the play’s message.

4767However, the absolute gem of this play are the scenes where Subhi meets Jimmie. Most of the people who come to the fences are activists on protests. Jimmie, however, in a teenage girl without a political bone in her body. Although Subhi’s unexpected friendship with Jimmie is prominently mentioned in the publicity, it is actually only a side-story in a complex multi-threaded story. Nevertheless, the few two-hander scenes they have together are beautifully done. Like Subhi, Jimmie is a misfit in her world. She has a somewhat misguided attitude that she can take care of herself – something that will come perilously close to tragedy – but one secret she confides to Subhi is that she’s not that good as reading, and so Subhi reads her late mother’s stories for her.

All of the performances in the play were great, but Mary Roubos as Jimme was outstanding. Why does Jimmie ignore the warnings from her friends and neighbours about those immigrants and strike up a friendship with someone she doesn’t know? Unlike the other uninvited visitors to the fences, she doesn’t have a political bone in her body and has no interest in protesting or picketing – instead, one can infer from the script she’s motivated by loneliness. But you don’t need the script to tell you this. I don’t know how she does it, but you can work out virtually everything I’ve said from her movement and body language before she’s spoken a single word on stage. If someone was ever to do a short two-hander version of this story, you could probably carry it on Subhi and Jimmie’s meetings alone, if these excellent performances can be replicated.

I suspect most of the verdicts on The Bone Sparrow will be skewed one way or the other by approval/disapproval of the political stance rather than artistic merit. (I don’t know if James Delingpole is planning to review this, but I can already imagine what his review would say.) That, I think, is a mistake, but hey, I’m not going to talk anyone out of that here. If you want political theatre to be persuasive (and I can’t believe this wasn’t at least part of Pilot Theatre’s aim), you need to think not about winning approval from your supporters but winning over the rest. In this respect, the play relies heavily on factual claims; I am sceptical over that effectiveness, because anyone can come up with a list of counter-claims. But the story is good and is especially carried by the aforementioned scenes between Subhi and Jimmy. You are selling yourself short if you are watching this for political validation. See it for the story.

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