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This tiny theatrical experience from Scotland is like no other – and it's at Melbourne Festival
Is it theatre? That’s a question that’s been asked a fair bit about Melbourne Festival’s Flight, a 45-minute experience that uses sound, simple lighting and hundreds of static dioramas to tell the story of Kabir and Aryan, two young refugee brothers from Afghanistan seeking a new home in London.
It’s a little difficult to describe the set-up without any kind of visual aid, but we’re going to give it a go.
Directed by Jamie Harrison (the illusion designer for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and Candice Edmunds, Flight uses a single giant turntable covered in tiny models. Each audience member sits in a private booth around the table, wearing headphones. As the table slowly spins, tiny scenes light up one by one, in quick succession, to illustrate the story that’s unfolding on the audio track. Some of the scenes are entire, meticulously crafted cityscapes, whereas others are close-ups of a particular character’s face in a moment of fear or anguish. There are voice actors playing each of the characters in this story, but there are no actors performing live. Which is surely a key requirement of theatre, right?
Flight is based on Australian-born novelist and journalist Caroline Brothers’ 2012 book, Hinterland. Although it’s fictitious, it’s apparently well-researched and everything that happens to the two children is drawn from real-life anecdotes. Aryan (voiced by Farshid Rokey), is the older brother, just at the start of his teens. He’s fiercely protective of Kabir (voiced by Nalini Chetty), who has memorised the journey they’ll take: “Kabul, Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome, Paris, London.”
But of course, things don’t go entirely to plan. They find themselves working as slave labour, abused by strangers who don’t see them as human, and trying to evade authorities (imagined here as squawking seagulls). Tragedy is never far away for these two young boys
Yet for all its breathtaking technical mastery and heartstring-pulling, it may leave you feeling strangely cold. This is a tough story to tell, and perhaps Harrison and Edmunds decided they needed to take it out of the real world and into this new form so that we could hear it afresh. But it doesn’t feel quite as human as it might. It’s also not helped by having the ushers, who take you down several flights of stairs to a hidden room in the Arts Centre, telling you that you may need a moment after the show to sit quietly and be with your feelings. Nothing stops theatre from affecting you like a warning that it’s going to affect you in a huge way.
The experience itself is unsatisfactorily isolating – it allows you to be totally passive as the story unfolds. There’s no actor staring you in the face and holding your attention, and the show will be exactly the same whether you’re there or not.
Passivity is the last thing you want from an Australian audience when you’re telling a story about the plight of refugee children. The show opens mere weeks after more horrific revelations of neglected refugee children self-harming, under Australia’s care in detention centres, have emerged.
It mightn’t matter so much whether or not Flight is theatre – it inspires wonder no matter what you label it – but it’s hard to escape the feeling that the story would be more affecting were it told in a theatrical setting where a group of Australians are forced to be present and grapple with our own complicity as a collective. That way it mightn’t let its audience off the hook quite so easily by leaving them alone to engage or disengage as they choose.