There is an unmistakeable irony to comedian and actor Oliver Twist choosing that name for himself. Unlike Dickens’ famed character, this Australian Twist does not, for a moment, ask for sympathy, even though his experiences as a child refugee were often abhorrent and harrowing.
In the hour-long one-person show Jali, writer and performer Twist charts his difficult journey from Rwanda to Ipswich, Queensland, not as a piece of overwrought melodrama, but with an exquisite, scintillating humour. To our “first-world” sensibilities, this is perhaps a surprising turn of events, having become used to stories of this nature being framed as a sort of “tragi-porn”, offering perverse catharsis for viewers who have done more in contributing to the hardship of asylum seekers, than actually helping them.
In Jali, we see a protagonist emerge victorious, in spite of the obstacles we put in his way. Twist’s writing alternates between a sublime sense of the poetic, and a disarming realism derived from his burgeoning career as a stand-up comic. As the show moves back and forth in time, we observe his personal growth over the years whilst gaining an understanding of trauma, and memories of traumatic events, as omnipresent forces that are carved into our beings, playing out their effects even when we are unconscious of their existence. Twist is on a joyful trajectory, but a bright future does not mean a forgotten past.
As a performer, Twist is full of charm and remarkably at ease with his audience. Consistently engaged and present, he holds our attention effortlessly, able to gain our trust from the outset. Bringing a reassuring warmth to his stories, we feel securely cradled as we bear witness to these first-hand accounts of information we usually obtain, reliably or otherwise, from a deteriorating news media. Jali, however, is rarely a dark experience. Twist is irrepressibly humorous, with wonderful timing and a deadpan approach that somehow manages to persuade us of an indomitable strength within the human spirit. It is, indeed, admirable when people can overcome adversities of this magnitude. But more importantly, these anecdotes teach us not only of our resilience, but that we need to prevent these horrors from occurring to anyone, anywhere.
Erin Taylor’s direction capitalises on Twist’s formidable likeability. She ensures that we perceive vulnerability without any need for humiliation, and showcases her subject’s vital optimism in a manner that proves irresistible. Taylor offers up a vision of a new Australia, or maybe an ever-changing Australia, that we all feel invested in, and that we want to do better for. Production and lighting design are gently harnessed by Kelsey Lee, enhancing the show’s intimate qualities. There is a quietness to the atmosphere that emphasises the gravity, and that simultaneously allows the performer’s natural vibrancy to shine. In a similarly sensitive fashion, Chrysoulla Markoulli’s precise, measured music helps punctuate both the comedy and the drama whilst assisting our imaginations to travel the continents along with our storyteller.
Twist reminds us that all the borders that we build can be thought of as arbitrary. No human is born to be separate from earth, yet decisions have been made to deprive individuals of access to infinite spaces in the belief that certain lands belong to certain people, and that some are simply to do without. In truth, we can only think of ourselves as custodians of places, and to think that we own anything, that the earth is not entirely autonomous, is pure arrogance. There is something in us that wishes to hoard, and in the process cause dispossession to other people. Some might argue that that is our nature. If that is, indeed, the case, it might be worthwhile learning to act against our nature, if we truly care about discerning right from wrong. Jali is our wake up call.