They Are Worse Than Us
Disapol Savetsila's Australian Graffiti
Sydney Theatre Company | Sydney
directed by Paige Rattray
Asian restaurants are a familiar sight in Australian towns everywhere, but what we know is restricted only to their dining rooms and service areas. In his debut play Australian Graffiti, Disapol Savetsila, the youngest ever playwright (23) on the company's main stage, presents a fantastical, yet bleak, look at what happens behind the kitchen door of these inscrutable spaces.
It is a story about Thai-Australians, both immigrants and native-born. Ben is a teenager, born in Sydney but who has since moved to an unnamed country town with his mother Baa, proprietor of the local Thai restaurant. Boi, Loong and Nam are employees stuck in the kitchen, with only work as salvation, completely cut off from mainstream society. When graffiti appears on one of the local churches, bearing Thai characters, the town takes the opportunity to carry out their racism, boycotting and harassing the group of five outsiders.
Savetsila’s seamless interweaving between surrealism and realism, creates his own universe of storytelling, where fact and fiction, tangibility and metaphysical, coexist to reveal truths of Australian life from the perspective of cultural minorities. Australian Graffiti is a play for the marginalised, speaking to and for communities with a voice rarely represented in our artistic landscape. It is a sign of the times, a valuable work that heralds the arrival of a new generation of creators that can only materialise with a certain level of social maturation.
The production is sensitively rendered by director Paige Rattray, whose gentle melancholy allows the play’s poignancy to sing through, with a deep and painful authenticity. Australian Graffiti is often darkly humorous, and Rattray’s depiction of its personalities is suitably nuanced, revealing both the good and the faults of the people we meet, even the ones who experience persecution.
Tenderly and imaginatively lit by Sian James-Holland, with music by Max Lyandvert and sound by Michael Toisuta take us through subtle fluctuations of emotional states, the designer David Fleischer does an excellent job of turning a vast auditorium into a surprisingly suitable stage for Savetsila’s intimate writing.
Mason Phoumirath is impressive as Ben, passionate and convincing with what he presents as lead actor. His relation to place and people feels remarkably genuine, even though the circumstances are highly unusual. There is a psychological accuracy in his portrayal that gains our empathy, and the stories we hear become believable as a result. Gabrielle Chan and Kenneth Moraleda bring vulnerability and sentimentality to the show, with intensely moving expressions of the migrant experience, bringing attention to the play’s humanitarian concerns.
Underneath so many of our world’s surfaces, resides a threat of violence. Australia’s colonisation, our history of it and its continuing effects, is rarely spoken of with sufficient honesty. Like any human defect that is left unattended, disease inevitably transpires. When we are unable to acknowledge the root of our problems, they can only persist.
photo | ©Daniel Boud