Asylum: Lisa chats with Richard Hilliar (Theatre Interview)


Asylum is on at Comber Street Studios, Paddington 15-25 November. You can grab your tickets here.

It is no small thing to tackle local works, but it must be even more difficult in Australia, where (in my opinon) our cultural cringe still haunts us and nothing is sacred unless first blessed by London or New York. Richard Hilliar, an artist regularly pushing against the boundaries of “bourgeoise acceptable” makes thought provoking theatre that often goes against that which might be deemed appropriate or typical. Here, he joins forces with Brave New Word theatre company to bring a new Australian work to the stage.  Asylum is a play written by Ruth Fingret. Brave New Word has this to say on its website:

Asylum is a new contemporary work about 5 people and the very different ways they are all seeking asylum in their lives. It’s a story about a broken family, and the personal side of our immigration process.
Craig is an immigration officer who has retreated into a rigid sense of responsibility and morality from being left by his wife long ago to battle with his delinquent son. His conviction in his own righteousness is challenged when he meets Hajir, a Lebanese man applying for a protection visa to remain in Australia on the same day his ex-wife returns and Jason is arrested. Now Craig is forced to consider something previously impossible: Is he willing to lie in the name of a greater good, and who will he protect by doing so?
Asylum will be presented in an intimate found space at Comber Street Studios, Paddington from November 15th till 25th.

I was lucky enough to get to chat to Richard about this forthcoming production. Check out his excellent answers to my egg-headish questions.



LT: The subject of asylum seekers and immigration has been a hot topic in Sydney (and Australian) theatre for a couple of years now. There is a struggle to find a way to speak about this problem and create impact. How do you, as a director, encourage an experience where speech has an inherent power, and does not come across as beautiful but superfluous?

RH: think it’s very difficult for language to be both beautiful and superfluous. There is beauty in precision, subtlety and the understated. Superfluity quickly descends into tediousness and indulgence and I, personally, have a hard time finding beauty in those things. Besides, in my practice I have always tried to uncover the emotionally powerful and immediate qualities of a play, rather than the beautiful or ornamental.

I think you highlight this power by a paring back of anything unnecessary to the clear storytelling of the piece. The audience only hears what they need to hear, only sees what they need to see. If an action or word doesn’t forward the narrative or elucidate some aspect of character, it doesn’t need to be there. Just get on with, essentially.


LT: As a director, how do you show humans on the stage to humans in the audience without resorting to the dubious enchantments of desire or terror? What is the truth of being human that a play like Asylum can call forth in actors to connect them with audiences?

RH: It’s very easy for characters to be reduced to a trope. “The mother” or “The cop” or, in the case of a play like Asylum, “The refugee”. In this latter instance, we often apply an otherness to that person, as it allows for a quick and easy categorisation without any need for exploration or investigation into that person or their motivations. What we’re trying to present in this piece that the kneejerk victimisation of a person is just as diminishing as a kneejerk vilification. Being a refugee is not the defining characteristic of a person, it is just their current circumstance, it’s important to not reduce them to a stereotype simply because it’s easy or comforting.


LT: If Brecht’s “distancing effect” was to help us connect with a hero via his physical distance from us and allow for a certain proximity in time, do you think theatre is in danger of romanticizing the immigrant out of their essence? Their humanity? How are you avoiding the bourgeois problem of romanticizing the immigrant for the purpose of comforting our conscience?

RH: The solution to this problem is to make sure the character has flaws, just like anyone else. Just because they’re an immigrant doesn’t mean they’re incapable of lying, or displaying selfishness, arrogance or any of the myriad negative qualities that are present in greater or lesser degrees in every person on this planet. We have the problem at times as viewing these people as dew-eyed children who need Caucasians to take care of them. This isn’t the case. They’re just people who are currently in a bad situation. They aren’t necessarily good people every single time. But they’re all people.


LT: When an actor performs in a play, it is difficult to forget that the character, no matter how beautifully written, is a phantom. The play is real, but the characters are not. When you direct actors performing such an important narrative and perspective, what can you do (if anything) to interrupt the idea that we are watching actors on a stage?

RH: I think trying to make an audience forget that they’re watching a play is always going to be a fruitless task. An audience is never going to forget they are sitting in a dark room surrounded by other people watching actors: our ability to disconnect from reality is not that advanced. Nor do I think that should be the goal. We aren’t constructing alternate realities, we’re creating a piece of art with the aim to both entertain and present and explore ideas.

In regards to actors, specifically, the best I can do for them is try to give them the tools they’ll need to give an honest presentation of the part each night. This isn’t simply through blocking and performance development, but also through discussions of motivation and dramaturgy. So long as what they do is truthful for them in that moment, I can’t ask for anything more than that.


LT: Sartre said theatre is not concerned with reality; it is only concerned with truth. Do you agree or disagree with this statement? How does this apply to a play like Asylum?

RH: I think blanket statements as to what theatre is or is not concerned with is naïve at best and arrogant at worst. Theatre has different concerns for different practitioners. Having said that, my opinions do align with Sartre’s. I’m not at all interested in presenting a perfect slice of life because, as I mentioned previously, I don’t think it’s possible: we are watching a rehearsed and conscious creation, not real life.

This approach is apparent in Asylum as we aren’t interested in a naturalistic staging or narrative structure. Scenes play out simultaneously, proxemics don’t follow typical guidelines and the set is non-existent. The production is solely concerned with the characters and their actions. It does not look like reality. But I hope it looks truthful.