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Journey of Asylum – Waiting (Close Reading)

Literature (Year 12) - Essays and Close Readings

Jeckmen Wu

This was a practice close reading of Text C (Journey of Asylum – Waiting) from the Close Reading Section of the 2020 Literature WACE Exam.


Catherine Simmonds’ Journey of Asylum – Waiting is a Brechtian play centring on the issues surrounding asylum seekers in Australia, contextually relating to the “turn back the boats” policy a few years after the time of production (2010). The play depicts a tribunal proceeding with five asylum seekers / refugee characters. Created in collaboration with actual asylum seekers from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the play is openly critical of Australian society, challenging the mythic notions of the “lucky country” & the “land of the fair go”. Hence, it invites a postmodern deconstruction of the simulatory Australian identity through the employment of Brechtian conventions & metatheatre. The play can also be read as a call to action, reaching out to the audience & the wider Australian community to fight for the rights of those who have been denied a voice. This then also invites an analysis of the different forms of power at play in this performance, & representatively, in society. These readings can be constructed through the use of dialogue, stage setting, and sound effects.


Simmonds’ play is a distinctively Brechtian performance which employs its conventions to invite a critique of Australian society. Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre contains features that often serve as jolting reminders of the artificiality of the theatrical performance. In doing so, it creates an alienation effect that distances the audience and makes them separate from the action to avoid illusion & emotional investment and instead encourage a thinking response. This is immediately evident in the ‘DESIGN AND SETTING’, which involves a ‘large projection screen attached to exposed scaffolding’. The exposure of ‘scaffolding’ in the staging along with the use of projected ‘multimedia footage’ makes the audience aware that this is a performance which is entirely scripted & constructed. Furthermore, to depict different settings, ‘ten clear portable Perspex screens are used to define spaces & places’, acting as a modern, high-tech version of Brecht’s white sheets and handwritten signs. The images projected on the props act as merely symbolic representations of different places, which again serves to prevent illusion amongst the audience. However, we can read this from a postmodern perspective to symbolise the hyperreal & simulatory nature of Australia as a nation. The settings are literally fabricated projections of reality while the ‘soundscapes are created with radio and television soundbites taken from interview with politicians, reporters, as well as advertisements and television shows.’ The visuals & sound effects allude to a postmodern “carnival of mirrors” that reflect media projected from other mirrors as these texts & stories about asylum seekers become self-referral–‘composed from interviews with other asylum seekers.’ The disembodied voice of those interviewed asylum seekers could symbolise their haunting of Australia, constantly reminding us of the inequality that exists in our society, thereby, denying us our idealistic notions of fairness & equality in Australian society. The postmodern deconstruction of Australia into “nation as simulation” (Baudrillard) is also supported by Haydar’s monologue. During it he complains of the lack of rights granted to refugees like him: ‘no work rights, no study rights’ and also no freedom of speech because ‘if [he] says one wrong thing about the Government… they’ll kick [him] out’. The inequality in who is given a voice & who isn’t directly challenges Australia’s cultural myth of the “lucky country”, making us contemplate whether we should keep embracing that phrase so naively (even though Donald Horne never intended it to be a compliment in the first place). This also reveals that the “nation can be read through the individual psyche” (Bhabha), as what might be a “lucky country” for some (e.g. rich white men), is in fact an “un-lucky country” for others (e.g. women, Indigenous, Immigrants). Hence, our supposed “unifying” and “all-accepting” national identity is radically deconstructed to reveal the inequality & discrimination that dwell beneath the façade. The use of sound effects, props & Brechtian conventions such as projections invites a critique of the socio-political issues presented & hence, challenge our misinformed notions of Australian identity & society. 


Simmonds also actively involves the audience in the performance by breaking the fourth wall through direct addresses to the audience: ‘TRIBUNAL MAN: [addressing the audience]’ and also ‘waits for the audience to answer.’ By initiating interactions with audience members, we become involved in the play in the position of the jury and just like a jury member would, we are encouraged to be critical observers & analyse the action onstage. Simmonds also cleverly does this by expanding the stage conceptually through the positioning of the ‘MEMBER… on a high podium chair at the back of the audience’ so that we almost feel like we’re onstage with the characters. The stage direction of ‘[interjecting]… throughout the performance’ would frequently remind the audience of his presence and subsequently, also remind us of our role in this play. Being cast in a position of a juror, we are also granted the power to decide the outcome. Hence, the play very much becomes a call to action by reminding us that we as a collective society have the power to create change for the treatment of these asylum seekers – as Haydar subtly reminds us: ‘you can talk, you’re free, you can say whatever you want.’ Therefore, we can read this play as a call to action, encouraging the audience to use the voice they’ve been given to fight for those who’ve been denied a voice outside this theatre.


The play also lends itself to a power reading. Power exists in multiple forms throughout this play, including positional & reward power, and a binary opposition is setup between those with & without power. First of all, the positional power given to formal authorities is not only conveyed onstage in the play in the form of the symbolic prop of a ‘surveillance camera’, but the audience is also subjected to this panoptic surveillance despite also being the “thousand eyes” of the hegemonic order ourselves. The ‘MEMBER [sitting] on a high podium chair’ immediately creates a physical semblance of being in a position of power by being higher than us, but the fact that he is also sitting behind us reflects the principles of Bentham’s panopticon – where the observed (audience) is unaware of when they are being watched as the observer is out of sight (behind the audience). This could represent the active force of the panoptic gaze in society which enforces conformity and discourages people from stepping out & fighting for change as that would directly subject them to the gaze of the social hegemony, & subsequently, social exclusion & isolation. On the other hand, those without power (i.e. Haydar) are forced to be obedient to those with power (‘the Government, Immigration, the Minister’). The government holds reward power as they are able to grant rewards, in this case a Permanent Residency, for those who are obedient & consent to the system, those who don’t say ‘one wrong thing about the Government’. Haydar’s lack of power is further exemplified by his ‘[refusal] to perform’, which may initially seem rebellious & an exercise of self-determination, but we immediately remember that it is all scripted & intended as part of the performance despite the fact that the scene is metatheatrically titled ‘THIS IS NOT AN ACT’. The reality is that it still very much is an act & he is, thus, trapped in a performance, in the hegemony of society which has tied him in an invisible string that prevents him from ‘[exiting] the stage’ & forces him to ‘confront the audience.’ By applying a power reading, it invites an analysis of the role of power in our broader society & the hegemonic prison we are all caught in & constantly subjected to the surveying panoptic gaze.


“Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it” (Brecht). Catherine Simmonds’ Journey of Asylum – Waiting is both a postmodern & Brechtian play which employs multiple conventions of epic theatre to create the v-effekt & encourage the audience to critically analyse & respond to the socio-political issues presented. Thus, it can be read as both a critique & deconstruction of our imaginary national identity as well as a call to action to assists the asylum seekers in Australia. However, a power reading analysing the different forms of power at play in this performance reveals the hegemony we are all trapped in. Hence, a polysemic reading of this play can be crafted through staging, stage directions & metatheatre.


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