How do you prove your sexuality? What if your life really depended on it?
That’s the dilemma at the heart of UK company Transport Theatre’s celebrated Elegy, penned and originally directed by Douglas Rintoul. Examining the harsh realities faced by gay men fleeing persecution in an Iraq left shattered and unstable after the West’s ‘shock and awe’ intervention, the one-man show is inspired by the work of acclaimed photojournalist Bradley Secker, who continues to interview and capture the likeness of a series of LGBTIQ people seeking a better life while languishing in refugee camps.
Lab Kelpie will stage the play’s Australian premiere at Melbourne’s Gasworks Theatre as part of this year’s Midsumma Festival. Performed by Nick Simpson-Deeks (Winners & Losers) and directed by John Kachoyan (MTC, Bell Shakespeare Company, MKA) it will be accompanied by a gallery of Secker’s most affecting work.
“When you’re trying to get refugee status, the more powerful your story is, the more likely it is you will get refugee status, but who decides what that story is and who decides how powerful it is?” Kachoyan asks.
“Is it safe to talk about being gay? And how do you prove it when you have nothing but a passport when you arrive at the border? Dates, times, people, evidence. It would be extraordinarily difficult to explain who you are.”
Elegy is not a straight verbatim piece, weaving as it does the recollections of several dislocated men into something far more lyrical.
“It’s a poem of sorts, it’s not a Wikipedia page or a documentary,” Kachoyan said.
“It really is a beautiful piece of storytelling.”
The more he researched the plight of queer communities in Iraq, the more Kachoyan realised the complexity at play in a country that, under Saddam Hussein, was surprisingly more tolerant.
“You assume things are sort of linear, that they were bad and they get less bad, but actually after the destabilisation of Iraq, and particularly the rise of militias that are motivated by religion, they tend to become moral police in this vacuum.”
With so much of the dialogue surrounding asylum seekers charged with a ferocious and often dehumanising rhetoric, Kachoyan acknowledges the weight of Elegy.
“I think sometimes it’s easier to just go ‘well, there’s just this mass of people called asylum seekers,’ or the pejorative terms that the media uses, and within that what we’ve also discovered is that there’s also persecution within those communities," he said.
“Of all the people who are fleeing Syria or Iraq, some might also be homophobic, so there are refugees in camps all across Europe that are still experiencing homophobic violence and discrimination. It’s heart-breaking, but it also really differentiates those stories and reminds you that people seeking asylum come from all sorts of different communities and flee for all sorts of different reasons.”
Videos of young men being thrown to their deaths from tall buildings during the Syrian crisis have disturbed Kachoyan.
“What’s extraordinary is after anyone leaves Iraq, they still move through a series of countries which themselves have histories of homophobic violence and their own issues with immigrants. It’s not packing up and fleeing and ending up somewhere safe, A to B. There’s all this time and energy expended in between and you can be in settlement camps for years until you’re processed.”
Kachoyan says Simpson-Deeks has grasped the lyrical nature of the piece, conveying these lived experiences with a narrative strength that embraces the theatrical.
“You’re not thinking about the other character, listening and reacting. Nick’s not re-enacting things for us, he’s actually just telling us a story. It means you always have to look up and talk to us. When he does that, it really sings.”
“We’ve been reading a lot of articles and it’s really confronting stuff sometimes, but this is happening and it’s happening on our doorsteps.”
While these experiences spill out of the turmoil in the Middle East, Kachoyan said he's well aware that queer persecution is, quite possibly, playing out on Nauru and Christmas Island.
“We’ve been reading a lot of articles and it’s really confronting stuff sometimes, but this is happening and it’s happening on our doorsteps,” he said.
“It’s happening mostly with all of us passively endorsing it.”
Kachoyan says Gasworks and Midsumma’s diverse arts programming provides the perfect platform to explore these personal accounts in a way that engages, rather than hectors, audiences.
“We’re really lucky in the middle of Melbourne in Midsumma 2016 to be able to talk about that story and examine a little bit of the privilege that we have in Australia, “ he said.
“If this show talks to people, moves them or makes them think a bit more deeply about both the plight facing queer communities across the world as well as refugee communities, then that’s fantastic.”