• A scene from the play The Age of Bones. (The Age of Bones)Source: The Age of Bones
The Age of Bones uses Indonesian shadow puppetry to help tell a darkly funny tale inspired by the real-life stories of 60 Indonesian boys imprisoned in Australia for working on refugee boats.
Alyssa Braithwaite

15 Mar 2017 - 3:31 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 9:51 AM

When nearly 60 Indonesian teenage boys were locked up in adult jails around Australia for their involvement in human trafficking in 2011, Darwin playwright Sandra Thibodeaux was struck by their plight.

The boys were told they would be paid handsomely to work on sightseeing boats, but instead they found themselves working on asylum seeker boats. When the boats were intercepted by the Australian Navy, the boys were charged with people smuggling and many were incarcerated for more than two years.

At the time the big issue in the media was around live cattle exports to Indonesia, and Thibodeaux was shocked that comparatively little attention was paid to this human tragedy.

As a mother of a teenage boy herself, she couldn't ignore it.

"I'm always big on mother-children narratives - once you've had a child there's no-one that you love more than your child really," says Thibodeaux.

"It's probably the most important human relationship and it will always lend itself to dramatisation."

Thibodeaux went to eastern Indonesia to do some on-the-ground research, and find out how the families of the boys were impacted by the events.

"I wanted to find out how the families there were living and working and getting by," she says.

"It certainly was emotional meeting the families - and tricky and awkward, because I'm coming in as an Australian as well, so the first thing I had to do was apologise to them on behalf of our government for the trauma that they'd gone through. And then I explained that I was intending to write a play about the situation.

"Finally the ice broke when I brought out my phone and I decided to show them a photo of my son, and said 'oh you know, he's a standard teenager, he's on Facebook all night and he sleeps all day'. And they just cracked up, they just loved the story of this lazy teenager, so that became a bit of a riff and inevitably found its way into the play."

After speaking with the families, Thibodeaux holed herself up in her tiny hotel room and wrote The Age of Bones (Jaman Belulang) in 36 hours.

The title refers to the method used by the Australian Federal Police - a widely discredited wrist x-ray test - to try to determine the ages of the boys, who they did not believe were underage. 

It tells the story of an Indonesian boy, Ikan, who goes fishing one day and fails to return home. Assuming the worst, his parents hire a legendary seafarer to look for his corpse, but he finds nothing. The play traces what happened to Ikan, from the day he left to his imprisonment in Australia and his fight to return home.

The Indonesian-Australian co-production uses traditional Indonesian shadow puppets and surreal elements to tell the story in a magical way that is suitable for teenagers as well as adults.

"I was worried because jail scenes and court scenes can seem really grim and the scenes would be really heavy and everyone would be heartbroken," Thibodeaux explains.

"I thought instead I would do something a bit magical with it, so once the boy gets to Australia the whole play goes down under, down to the bottom of the sea, and we use shadow puppets and video and music to create this underwater world. 

"It looks gorgeous, but it also allows us to play with real life and shadow, what's truth and what's lie, what are we imagining and what is the reality."

The play was performed in Indonesia last year, and is now touring around Australia

Thibodeaux says it has been eye-opening for both Indonesian and Australian audiences.

"[Indonesian audiences] were curious and surprised that an Australian would tackle this story from an Indonesian point of view, and I think also touched that people would be making this attempt from Australia to look at issues across borders," she says.

"For Australian audiences, it allows them to see a story from the point of view of Indonesians, a point of view maybe they don't normally access and what it must be like to grow up in eastern Indonesia and go through what these guys went through."

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