The fiction and fact of Two Brothers

By Hannie Rayson
April 19, 2005

The play is right in raising issues about our treatment of refugees.

Writing a play is different from writing a piece of investigative journalism. In Tom Hyland's attack on my play (Opinion, 15/4) he writes that Two Brothers is "a compelling, provocative and entertaining dramatic thriller". But apparently, that is not enough. According to Hyland, I've written a terrific play - but it fails because it is not a factual account of what happened to the SIEV X, the refugee boat that sank on its way to Australia on October 19, 2001.

I am painfully aware of the inconsistencies and obfuscations that make it impossible to know what happened to the SIEV X. Why 353 people drowned when the boat went down in a heavily watched area of ocean is not at all transparent. The dimensions of this tragedy - and the unnerving sense that we are not being told the whole truth - is compounded by our cruel treatment of asylum seekers, by the inhumanity of the "Pacific Solution" and by mandatory detention.

To me, there aren't too many shades of grey in these events. The suffering we are inflicting on these people is wrong. And that cruelty needs to be named. But if I had wanted to write an account of the sinking of the SIEV X, I would have called my boat the SIEV X. Had I been writing a documentary I would have been meticulous about the facts.

But I chose to write a political thriller - a form of entertainment that looks cruelty, ambition and injustice in the face. The play opens on a dark and stormy night with a cabinet minister stabbing a man to death, in self-defence. That clearly signals to an audience that we have leapt into fiction.

The story is set in the future where the lies, the cruelty and the indifference have continued to fester. An ambitious politician named Eggs Benedict seizes the moment and makes his bid to be the next prime minister.

But he has made a terrible miscalculation. A refugee ship named the Kelepasan has sunk. A navy frigate was at the scene and was about to rescue the refugees from the ocean. But Eggs (who is the Minister for Home Security) orders it to turn about. Let's say that a decent, Aussie sailor was on that naval frigate. He's passionate about the navy, determined to do his duty and to maintain the integrity of our borders. Let's make him Egg's own son. What if he had to face the choice between being a whistleblower and betraying his own father? This is dense moral territory. Just the stuff of theatre.

The naval officer is the moral heart of this play. This is not an attack on the navy. It is a portrait of what we are asking our servicemen and women to do. There are many accounts on the public record of what our navy personnel went through in boarding overcrowded fishing boats and towing them back to Indonesia. It makes for poignant reading. It also makes it clear that this is some of the worst work they have been required to carry out.

We are living in times when debate is not encouraged. Andrew Bolt, the relentless fulminator, is screaming at me in page after page of vitriol: "Shut up. Just shut up. You are a witch who has no right to speak." In this climate, what is called for is bold provocation. Now is not the time for timidity in our drama.

Hyland accuses me of producing a play that preaches to the converted. Nine hundred people see this play every night. They are not required to fill in a questionnaire before they are permitted entry. How does Hyland know who these people are, how they vote, what their views are? I don't. I just know that they keep coming. And I have never heard audiences be so vocal: gasping, chiding, laughing and clapping spontaneously mid-scene.

Others say this is anti-Liberal Party propaganda - as if the theatre is no place for interrogating the government of the day about its fundamental values. But the greatest political indictment in the play is surely directed against the Labor Party. You set out to write a political play about one of the defining issues of our times and the Labor Party is not present. What does that say? In my play, the defender of human rights is a refugee advocate. Not a Labor politician. This recalls the joke: Who is the leader of the Opposition? Julian Burnside.

This play is a thriller about power and evil. And yes, I do hope that it energises the audience to ask questions about the real world. Three-and-a-half years after Tampa, 54 people are still incarcerated on Nauru. The misery and human damage our policies have inflicted on some people will never be undone. The future must be different. My play is a vision of what that future may be like if people of goodwill - whatever their politics - do not win the day.

Hannie Rayson is a Melbourne author and playwright.


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