On the Grace of Officials

MKA_OfficialsIt may be tempting to assume that issues surrounding refugees are analogous from country to country. It is, after all, a global problem, brought about by international movements. Flashpoints in one jurisdiction cause waves of desperate immigration in another. Sometimes it takes a Finnish play translated into English and performed in Australia to make you realise the limits of this assumption.

On the Grace of Officials by Helsinki playwright Emilia Pöyhönen concerns itself with the purgatorial inhumanity of immigration policy and its effects on the detained and detaining alike. It’s a strong piece, and well handled in some ways by the director Rohan Maloy and a cast drawn largely from VCA acting graduates. But it doesn’t entirely work, largely because of the problems of translation.

Anthony Burgess said translation could only be measured in degrees of loss, and it is hard to disagree in this case. Not only are there some questionable word and phraseology decisions – politics when they clearly mean policy, for example – but the whole play feels disconnected and incoherent in an Australian context.

Perhaps it would have been better to leave the play in its original Finnish setting. After all, the central character is Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer and humanitarian who created the ‘Nansen Passport’ as a means of legalising the passage of stateless persons, including Marc Chagall and Igor Stravinsky. The horrific renunciation of this man’s legacy by current governments around the world is in large part the point of the play.

The problem is that Australian attitudes and policies towards refugees have their own specificity, largely unrelated to that of the Finnish. The horror of incarceration and the insane paranoia of ‘boat people’ remain unexplored here, replaced instead with a Kafkaesque hell of bureaucracy entrapping the desperate and stateless in endless paperwork.

The production design [by Kim Ritchie], cramped and awkward as it is in the tiny space, has much to recommend it, and the use of puppetry is inspired. Most of the performances are strong, even if some of them flirt dangerously with bathos.

Overall, it’s a rather fascinating exercise, and certainly worth the effort. If only MKA could have trusted the audience to make its own local connections to the play, and performed it with a genuine sensitivity to the original context, it could have been a truly salutary reminder of the universality of misery and dislocation.

Director: Rohan Maloy  Performers: Alistair Frearson, Alan Grace, Jean Goodwin, James Kendal, Rani Pramesti, Shannon Quinn, Sebastian Robinson, Spencer Scholz  Stage & Costume Design: Kim Ritchie  Sound Design: Tom Backhaus  Lighting Design: Clare Springett  Production Manager: Ketura Budd  Executive Producer: Tobias Manderson-Galvin

On the Grace of Officials
HYPRTXT Festival Hub – Tuxedo Cat, 17 Wills Street, Melbourne
Performance: Tuesday 17 June 2014
Season: 17 – 28 June 2014

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

Image: courtesy of MKA