Published in 2016, Zana Fraillon’s The Bone Sparrow tells the story of Subhi, a young Rohingya boy who has spent his entire life inside an Australian detention camp. His world has been shaped by fences, but in his imagination he is free. The book was shortlisted for both the Carnegie Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Now the book has been adapted for the stage by Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan and directed by Esther Richardson for Pilot Theatre, a UK company which specialises in making “grown up work for young audiences”. Fraillon was inspired to write it after researching the plight of child refugees in Australia’s dehumanizing immigration system.
The production opens next month at York Theatre Royal and then tours until April, so here, Natasha Tripney chats to the creative team: novelist Zana Fraillon, playwright S. Shakthidharan and director Esther Richardson…
What made you want to tell this story?
Zana Fraillon: When I wrote it, I actually thought by the time it was published it’d be a work of historical fiction. I was sure that our immigration policies would be so shunned by the rest of the world, that we would do a turn-around. Instead, it’s known as the ‘Australian solution’ and has been taken on by other countries around the world.
What was the initial response to the book?
Zana Fraillon: I sent it to quite a few publishers [in Australia] and no one was interested. And then I sent it to literary agent Claire Wilson, and she loved it and said, “yes, I want to take you on.” But when she offered it to Australian publishers, they weren’t interested initially. And then when it was received very well in the UK, the Australian publishers jumped on board, and decided they wanted to do it as well. It didn’t surprise me at all that it was initially received much better in the UK than them in Australia, and that the uptake was slow. In fact, if anything, I’m surprised that kids [in Australia] are studying it.
How have you gone about adapting The Bone Sparrow for the stage?
S. Shakthidharan: I felt it that was such an interesting way to tell the story of someone in detention, and I hadn’t seen that contrast before between the brutal reality and the charming nature of [Subhi’s] imagination. I had already done a fair bit of work with refugees and asylum seekers in Western Sydney. It can be heavy. But I was drawn to how charming the magic of the book was. It has a feeling of otherworldliness that I could sense would be beautiful on stage.
Can you tell me a bit about your past work with refugees?
S. Shakthidharan: I’ve only become a writer recently. Before that was as a community artist. In Australia, there’s a practice called Community Arts and Cultural Development, which is about the idea that communities deserve control over their own cultural capital. And that power and privilege comes from that and can be lost if you don’t have it. I set up an organisation called Curious Works, building up cultural leaders and handing them the tools to be able to do that in their communities. That’s flowed through to my writing practice.
How do you approach this material with a young adult audience in mind?
S Shakthidharan: I try to use simple and clear language and not unnecessarily make things more complicated than they need to be, but at the same time not to dumb anything down and be open about the reality of this situation. I felt if we could make his world and journey real then that’s what we needed to do for the kids to relate to that.
Why is theatre a good medium for telling stories like these?
S Shakthidharan: I love the paradox of an audience coming to something and saying “this is clearly not my story. And yet, somehow it is. As an immigrant, I’ve grown up finding ways to relate to white stories, to connect to the Western cultural machine, and it’s lovely to be able to turn that around and show that universal stories exist through Rohingya boys as well. And I think if you can pull that off in the theatre, it is so transformative.
Can you tell me a bit about the visual aspect of the production? What creative choices have you made in bringing it to the stage?
Esther Richardson: We took a decision as a team that we would make the focus the camp, so that we can then create the world of Subhi’s imagination. That allows you the possibility to do anything you want, which is just so freeing. Miriam Nabarro, the production’s designer, has approached the show like a visual artist. We also teamed up with a puppet maker called Alison Duddle, and video designer Daniel Denton to try and create this language that is both analogue and digital. These two elements work together to create these moments of magic.
What has your involvement been with the British Rohingya community?
Esther Richardson: We started working with young people and a group of refugees to get their take on the book, because it helps us learn about what really resonates for our key audiences. We worked for quite a long time to try and access the Rohingya community. Eventually, we connected with Sirazul Islam. He loved the project and really understood it. He gave us notes straightaway and we decided quite quickly that he needed to have a much deeper involvement if possible – he’s now the assistant director.
Why is it important to tell this story now and what do you hope audiences will take away from it?
Esther Richardson: I really hope that it gets people doing what they can to support the refugee charities and the people who are on the frontline. This is a very critical time here. Under Priti Patel, we’re currently going to pursue the ‘Australian solution,’ and I think making sure people have an awareness of that is very important. And raising awareness specifically about the Rohingya is also important. [Talking about] how we welcome people, how we work towards better solutions as a society is also key.
S Shakthidharan: Subhi goes through a crucible in this play. He has to grow up and deal with the reality of the world. To find the courage to speak up about it. I think that it is very timely for young people who might be coming into this show at a similar crossroads in their lives, trying to come to terms with what to do with the bits of the world that make them uncomfortable. This is a very hopeful and inspiring way to deal with that.
The Bone Sparrow opens at York Theatre Royal and plays from 25 Feb -5 March 2022 before touring until 23 April 2022. You can find dates, venues and tickets here.