Rarely has the opening night of a play been so closely linked to a news cycle. A press story on 23 February reported that the Australian government is being sued for AU$103 million in a Jakarta class action. The plaintiffs, one hundred and fifteen Indonesian men, were teenage boys when they were held in Australian adult jails or detention centres between 2008 and 2012. Accused of people smuggling, they were classified as adults based on an outdated and discredited method of measuring wrist bones to determine someone’s age. All of them were eventually released; some had been incarcerated for as much as three years.
The play’s topicality is purely coincidental; the themes of human rights and family grief have a much longer shelf life. Despite the tale’s factual origins, the play owes nothing to documentary theatre but belongs to the tradition of Indonesian folk tales, fantastical storytelling, and shadow puppetry. It also brings to mind the work of French director Ariane Mnouchkine and the political fables of her Théâtre du Soleil.
Sandra Thibodeaux’s play The Age of Bones – Jaman Belulang. which opened at Melbourne’s La Mama Courthouse Theatre the same day as this news item was published, centres on the story of one of these boys. Ikan (which means fish in Bahasa Indonesian) is fifteen when the tale opens, a slightly feckless youth who lives with his poor but loving family on Roté, in the Lesser Sunda Islands. When we first meet him he is cocooned in a sarong, resisting all attempts by his parents to get him out of bed. His mother chides him and sends him off to fish: this is the only way the family will have something to eat for dinner. When Ikan fails to return, they are not alarmed; he is called Ikan because he lives in the sea and, unlike many fishermen, can actually swim. As the days pass without any news, his parents fear the worst. Gradually, mournfully, they accept the worst, but one day they receive a call from an Australian lawyer who tells them that their son had been persuaded to join a passing boat as a crew member and had inadvertently become involved in people smuggling. Now he is in jail. The lawyer is hoping to find evidence of Ikan’s age in order to secure his release. Read More