It's hard to empathise with people when you don't share similar experiences, but in THE AGE OF BONES, written by award-winning playwright Sandra Thibodeaux, universal themes of justice and family relationships share the stage with shadow puppets, video, music and text, and are offered to the audience with surprising warmth.
Spanning Australia and Indonesia, as well the ocean the separates our countries, the story follows 15-year-old Ikan (Jacob, though nobody calls him that), who goes missing after failing to return home from his day's fishing expedition. We discover than Ikan had been duped to work for what he believed to be a lot of money, only to find him jailed in Australia, where he's an ocean away from his family. The story is presented to the audience like a saga on the high seas, narrated by an animated old man (Deri Efwanto) and assisted – or berated, at times – by puppeteer Dalang. In Indonesian and in English, Ikan's tale takes us on a satirical journey with a sombre message.
Imam Setia Hagi as Ikan
It's also worth noting that THE AGE OF BONES was inspired by actual events involving 60 Indonesian boys who were imprisoned in Australia for working on refugee boats.
Of the inspiration for the play, Thibodeaux says, "There was widespread concern in Australia at the time about the treatment of Australian live cattle in Indonesia. This was all over the news, while the story about the Indonesian boys was not. It seemed that an Australian steer was of greater value than an Indonesian boy in public discourse." The fact that she is also a mother added to her attachment to the story.
If the subject of imprisonment and human rights seem like hard themes to consume in a theatre production, THE AGE OF BONES does well to inject more light and, dare I say it, a bit of mysticism into the play. Imam Setia Hagi as Ikan and his parents, played by Budi Laksana and Imas Sobariah, interact like any family unit would – with a warm familiarity that helps to underpin why Ikan's disappearance is just that much more heartbreaking. The use of beautiful puppets, operated by I Made Gunanta and I Wayan Sira, added to the appeal. Set design (Dann Barber), AV design (Mic Grunchy) and lighting design (Philip Lethlean) was so important in a piece like this, and the atmosphere of magic and dreamy other-worldliness was spot on. Kudos to Sound Designer and Composer Panos Couros for adding an extra layer to it all. Much of the music was composed in Indonesia, with atmospheric sounds recorded on Rote Island.
Deri Efwanto as the Old Man
At some points of play, I heard a child giggle, humoured by the physical humour in some of the scenes. Anchoring the harsher moments to the ocean and sea elements brought THE AGE OF BONES to a more accessible level. Thibodeaux explains, "To avoid the heaviness of realistic jail and court scenes, I took all the Australian scenes literally 'down under', beneath the ocean. The lawyer became a White Pointer; the judge an octopus."
All in all, THE AGE OF BONES was a thought-provoking piece of theatre, bringing to light a period of shared Australian and Indonesian history that many aren't aware of. With a cast that gels well together and standout production elements, it's not to be missed.