First Seen at The Street Theatre: Barren Ground

Christmas-Island-Red-CrabsCanberra-based writer Helen Machalias returns to Canberra’s The Street Theatre with a work-in-progress showing online of her new play Barren Ground on Friday 4 September 2020.

An urgent and contemporary exploration of the asylum seeker experience in Australia, Barren Ground, presents life in the Christmas Island detention centre between 2010 and its closure in 2018, merging elements of the plot, dialogue and characters of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with media reports of and first-hand accounts of refugees.

The play opens in 2010 with the SIEV221 shipwreck at Flying Fish Cove, with asylum seeker Prospero, his daughter Miranda, and fellow passenger Ariel among the few survivors, who are assisted by Caliban and other Christmas Islander locals. Over several years, the characters navigate this hostile, uncertain environment in different ways, each attempting to master the terrain of the island and achieve their version of freedom.

The play concludes in 2018 with the closure of the island’s detention centre and ambivalence towards the ‘brave new world’ that awaits them all. Machalias’s story interprets The Tempest’s timeless themes of dislocation, forgiveness and redemption through the human stories of this high-profile chapter in Australia’s history.

“When I pitched the concept of Barren Ground to the Street Theatre in late 2018, I couldn’t have imagined that in 2020 Christmas Island would again be in the news for being reopened, used as a quarantine site for travellers during the pandemic and to detain the Biloela family,” said Machalias.

“It’s a play that draws upon the timeless themes of The Tempest, but I also hope will have particular potency with the Street’s audiences because of its currency.”

FIRST SEEN: new works-in-progress offers Canberra audiences the opportunity to be part of the creative process helping The Street progress performance works to production-ready stage. First Seen provides a unique insight into development and is a vital part of The Street’s planning for future years to bring original and diverse Canberra stories to the stage.

“Working on First Seen has opened up a new realm of possibilities this year. We’ve taken it all online and embraced working remotely, creating a virtual workshop floor from the varied spaces of the creatives working on each project,” says Shelly Higgs, Executive Assistant – Arts Programs at The Street.

“First Seen is still very much about liveness and creativity and shared experience. We’re still able to interrogate work with the ultimate goal of making it the best it can be.”

“During these times, our practice has had to shift, but ultimately the process is the same; artists coming together to explore, investigate and construct new work. If anything, a global pandemic illustrates just how important stories are,” said Higgs.

Helen Machalias is a Canberra based writer who commenced her career as a journalist. She studied English and Theatre at the University of New England and University of Sydney.

Helen has created work with Sydney Theatre Company, Riverside Theatres and Playwriting Australia, with a particular focus on theatre for young people. She has been highly commended three times in Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwright of the Year Award and had her work performed as part of the Favourite Shorts regional play festival.

Helen participated in The Street’s Hive Program in 2010 and 2011. The resulting play, In Loco Parentis, which examined the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and assault on university campuses, was performed at The Street as part of the Made in Canberra program for the Centenary of Canberra and won a 2014 Canberra Critics Circle Award.

Director: Nicky Tyndale-Biscoe Featuring: Arishia Bordbar, Peter Cook, George Kanaan, William Tran Dramaturg: Granaz Moussavi Cultural Consultant: Yasin Sarabi Assistant to Dramaturg and Director: Marni Mount

Barren Ground will be presented in a work-in-progress showing online on Friday 4 September 2020 at 5.00pm. FREE – bookings essential as limited places are available. For more information, visit: for details.

Image: Christmas Island Red Crabs (supplied)