The Age of Bones: the human story of people smuggling
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The Age of Bones: the human story of people smuggling

In 2011 nearly 60 Indonesian teenage boys were incarcerated in adult jails throughout Australia for their involvement in human trafficking.

These boys were told stories that they would be working on sightseeing boats, offered more money than their families would see in a lifetime. Instead they found themselves working on asylum seeker boats, only to be intercepted by the Australian Navy and charged with people smuggling. Many of them spent more than two years in jail.

Age of Bones is a new Australian-Indonesian production inspired by the story of the 60 Indonesian boys wrongfully imprisoned in Australia for working on refugee boats.

Age of Bones is a new Australian-Indonesian production inspired by the story of the 60 Indonesian boys wrongfully imprisoned in Australia for working on refugee boats.Credit:Sarah Walker

When Darwin playwright Sandra Thibodeaux​ heard of their plight she knew she had the makings of a good story.

"At the time a big media issue was live cattle exports to Indonesia, there was a huge uproar about that," she said.

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Darwin playwright Sandra Thibodeaux said it would be too dull to locate the stories in prison cells and courtrooms.

Darwin playwright Sandra Thibodeaux said it would be too dull to locate the stories in prison cells and courtrooms.Credit:Sarah Walker

"What struck me was the parallel, that we seemed more concerned about cattle than we did about Indonesian children."

She began to research the story, talking to journalists and lawyers involved, eventually travelling to Indonesia where she met some of the families caught up in the situation.

"Moving there gave me better insight, a better sense of what it was like to live in eastern Indonesia.

"It's poverty stricken, there's no running water, or electricity, no cash. You could understand how these boys were lured by the traffickers."

The Age of Bones is a fantastical story of a young Indonesian boy who goes fishing one day and never comes home.

The Age of Bones is a fantastical story of a young Indonesian boy who goes fishing one day and never comes home.Credit:Sarah Walker

It was, and is still an ongoing, dark story. But the artist in Ms Thibodeaux knew she had to find a way to tell the tale.

"It's my personal preference not to do theatre which is grim," she says.

The play has a narrator and his offsider is a shadow puppeteer, making the journey easier for the audience to access.

The play has a narrator and his offsider is a shadow puppeteer, making the journey easier for the audience to access.Credit:Sarah Walker

"If you located these stories in prison cells and courtrooms it would be too dull.

"I prefer to do something a bit more magical. I come from a poetry tradition as well and I'm always looking for metaphors and ways to access a story that's a bit more left field, not so in your face and political, something more subtle and entertaining."

Working with Sumatran theatre company Teater Satu, The Age of Bones is a fantastical story of a young Indonesian boy, Ikan, who goes fishing one day and never comes home. His parents hire a legendary seafarer to find him but he finds nothing. The Age of Bones traces what happens to Ikan, from the day he left, to his imprisonment, to his return home.

Ms Thibodeaux wrote the story while she was living in eastern Indonesia, absorbing, she says, some of the folklore tradition.

"We have a narrator and his offsider is a shadow puppeteer, and together they help make the journey easier for the audience to access," she said.

"We use shadow puppets and video as well as live actors and music to recreate this magical world below the ocean, or 'down under', as it's called in the show."

Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre creative producer Adelaide Rief said the precinct wanted to explore the potential of what contemporary theatre could be.

"The Age of Bones is an intelligent and engaging interdisciplinary performance that reflects on Australia's role in one of the greatest contemporary issues of our time, the movement of people across borders," Ms Rief said.

"Presenting this work in Canberra, the seat of our nation's government, is a chance for Ainslie and Gorman to foster conversation about the role art can play in shaping our understanding complex problems and the deeply human experiences they create."

Ms Rief said by combining traditional forms such as shadow puppetry with digital projection and an incisive and playful narrative, The Age of Bones offered a transformative experience for arts lovers of all ages.

The play is now touring Australia but opened its run in Indonesia. Ms Thibodeaux said audiences there responded very warmly to the content of the show.

"I think they were surprised that an Australian writer would be interested in that story from an Indonesian perspective," she said.

"I think they were heartened in a sense, perhaps I think the same way we would feel if someone picked up an Australian story and did something with it.

"It's always nice when people outside your country take an interest in your perspective."

The Age of Bones is produced by Satu Bulan and Performing Lines in association with Browns Mart Arts and has been assisted by the Australian government through the Department of Communication and the Arts' Catalyst, Australian Arts and Culture Fund; ArtsNT; and Arts NSW.

The Age of Bones plays at Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre, C Block Theatre, from March 8-11. 7.30pm and matinees available. Suitable for all ages. Bookings via Eventbrite or at the door.

Karen Hardy is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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