Nick Simpson-Deeks in Elegy - photo by Sarah WalkerElegy has its Australian premiere at the 2016 Midsumma Festival. Created by Douglas Rintoul of Transport Theatre UK, its text draws on interviews with persecuted gay Iraqi men forced to flee their homes. The idea for the play was inspired by a series of photographs by photojournalist Bradley Secker intending to document the lives of such refugees. (These photographs are on display at Gasworks Arts Park until 7 February 2016.)

In some countries, the struggle for civil rights makes progress, even if slowly and sporadically. From the vantage point afforded by a place like Melbourne in 2016, how much would members of a young, local gay community know of the trials of the 1970s? Or, of the conditions in a place like Tasmania where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1997? How much less would a general western audience know about the treatment of LGBTIQ communities of a distant country?

I was disappointed to find that Elegy didn’t educate me all that much about the plight of its subjects. This is likely due to the nonlinear manner in which one man (Nick Simpson-Deeks) tells the story of his history in Iraq and escape from persecution. As we jump from one possible detention, back in time to life in a village, forward to a dance party or river crossing, part of me was always distracted by trying to work out “How did we get here?” or “How did the speaker get out of that incarceration, or was it something else?”.

There were some shocking insights, such as the revelation that known gay men had their names placed on public lists and were tortured. Other comments warranted more explanation, such one discussion between friends that “It’s worse now than it was under Saddam Hussein”. Hussein famously ran a secular dictatorship, and it was only as his regime crumbled that tensions escalated between the Shiite and Sunni Muslim groups. Was this administration deliberately (or merely accidentally) effective at suppressing homophobia?

In our time, some historical facts are well established, such as that Iraq after the second Gulf War was particularly violent.  I had hoped that Elegy would give more from a perspective of lived experience. Yet, it omits – in avoidance of comment on the roles of organised religion or nationalism? — any exploration of why some humans are so easily drawn to hate difference, and why others can tacitly accept the consequences.

The story is told almost exclusively from the third-person perspective. Simpson-Deeks is measured in relating his unnamed character’s history, maintaining detachment when describing his time as a refugee.  Under the direction of John Kachoyan, the piece succeeds in communicating the urgency of his flight. Letting details evolve without hysterical outbursts ensures that when Simpson-Deeks’ expresses his character’s personal loss it is given appropriate weight.

Special mention is due to the sound design and compositions by Russell Goldsmith and lighting by Rob Sowinski. These contributions are effective at foreshadowing critical events and assisting us in mentally transforming a simple stage into diverse locations.

We can hear terrible stories of one how group of humans mistreats another almost any day in the news. When Elegy shocks with accounts of barbarous acts, it doesn’t get to any of the whys of this behaviour. While it lives up to its title in having some poetic moments, for some it may present as placing stylistic choices ahead of providing substantial insights.

Director: John Kachoyan  Performer: Nick Simpson-Deeks  Sound Design/Composition: Russell Goldsmith  Lighting & Set Design: Rob Sowinski  Associate Designer: Bryn Cullen  Stage Manager: Amber Bock  Producers: Lyall Brooks & Adam Fawcett

Studio Theatre – Gasworks Arts Park, 21 Graham Street, Albert Park
Performance: Thursday 21 January 2016 – 7.00pm
Season continues to 6 February 2016
Bookings: www.gasworks.org.au or www.midsumma.org.au

For more information, visit: www.gasworks.org.au for details.

Image: Nick Simpson-Deeks in Elegy – photo by Sarah Walker