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Refugees meet Shakespeare in new drama

4 December 20230 comments

A new play that has recently opened in Canberra reimagines Shakespeare’s The Tempest through the prism of asylum seekers.

Playwright Helen Machalias started with the premise ‘what if the characters from The Tempest were Iranian refugees and were in the Christmas Island detention centre?’

The result is the play ‘Rough Magic’, which uses the Bard as a lens through which we can explore Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

The visually magnificent work is directed by Beng Oh and designed by Imogen Keen.

It features haunting Persian music and the set evokes the tropical forests, the deck of a boat and the cloud-capped palaces of ancient Persepolis.

The central story focuses on three asylum seekers and a Christmas Islander.

For her characters, the playwright has used names from The Tempest’s – the magic-obsessed Prospero, his innocent daughter Miranda, a free spirit; as well as  Ariel and Caliban, indigenous to the island.

Like he Tempest the play begins with a storm at sea, a reference to the incident at Christmas Islands Flying Fish Cove, were an asylum seeker boat was wrecked.

Prospero forgets he has a daughter and saves himself, but the resourceful Miranda, who has recently learnt how to swim, stays afloat and is rescued by locals, including Caliban.

Miranda is given the freedom of the island, which she wanders with detention centre worker Caliban, who, like his Shakespearean forbear, knows every inch of the island and is guardian to Christmas Island’s famous crabs.

The play includes a nod to Caliban’s famous ode to the sights and sounds of his native island, snippets of Prospero’s speech where he references his “rough magic” as well as an aria from King Lear.

As the play moves on, there is a shift in tone as gradually the asylum seekers are processed and either released or sent to detention.

The playwright is a comment on Australia’s asylum policies and ends with traditional Shakespearean climax as Ariel comes downstage to demand the audience’s applause.