Sri-Lankan- inset

A SRI LANKAN TAMIL ASYLUM SEEKER’S STORY AS PERFORMED BY AUSTRALIAN ACTORS UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF A SINHALESE DIRECTOR is by far the most absurdly titled play I have ever attended, but it certainly gets to the point.

Produced by the Merrigong Theatre Company, the production is written and directed by Wollongong-based playwright Dhananjaya Karunarathne. The play is as absurd as its name but, for the most part, intends to be so. It is witty and ridiculous, but solemn and profound in content, centred on honouring the integrity of a person’s experience when dealing with – and representing – their stories.

Originally performed some six years ago by Dhananjaya himself through the theatre’s independent artist scheme, the play returned as a full-scale production in September 2015. Under the guidance of their Sinhalese director, actors Adam Booth and Anthony Gooley performed this intimate show at the Bruce Gordon Theatre, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) nightly for two weeks between the 16th and 26th September.

The foundation of the story is simple; it follows a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker who arrives in Australia on an illegal boat, held in a detention centre for months without word of his situation. He soon meets a university student who requests an interview, hungry for academic gain. The student’s ability to empathise is hindered by the immeasurable distance between their experiences, ethics and values. But beyond this side-narrative lies the real story; two, white actors piece the events together in front of the audience, searching for the most meaningful, accurate and authentic way to represent emotions, experiences and characters foreign to them.

Booth and Gooley – in their acting – play the role of actors, aware of their context and the presence of the audience. Creative and theatrical decisions become harder as they piece the story together – a process that is part of a very meta-narrative in play which sees the performers constantly come out of character, grappling with the ethical conundrums that come with conveying lives beyond their experience. The process culminates in an ending that must be done four times before the actors feel they can conclude – scenes are acted, criticised and amended, but never quite right.

It took me a while to fully comprehend the depth of this show. At no point was the intention of the play clear, and there was a constant tension between the solemn portrayals of the experience of an asylum seeker and the awkwardness of the actors. The capacity of the two very-white, seemingly ignorant Australians to re-enact the gut-wrenching experiences of a Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seeker, were limited and superficial at best, with audiences cringing at the attempt. Here, the true talent of the actors transpires and the true premise of the play emerges: no one can ever really tell your story, but you.

The play makes a pertinent comment on the nature of journalism, very appropriate at this time when storytelling is an increasingly accessible pursuit. The decline and faltering relevance of print journalism, along with the emergence of digital news platforms, has seen a considerable increase in the industry’s punch-‘em-out attitude; focus is placed on the level of shock, entertainment or anger a story can produce, not necessarily its integrity.

The meta-narrative deals with the construction and portrayal of stories in theatre, journalism and life. The result is astonishingly pertinent in the current political landscape, and one that will remain so for years to come. The reinvention of A SRI LANKAN TAMIL ASYLUM SEEKER’S STORY AS PERFORMED BY AUSTRALIAN ACTORS UNDER THE GUIDANCE OF A SINHALESE DIRECTOR for this season, made for fresh and poignant theatre. If Dhananjaya returns to the Merrigong next season, it will definitely be worth a look.