Asylum: Lisa chats with Ruth Fingret (Theatre Interview)

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


The Sydney theatre community has been regularly appalled and concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers in this country. There have been many wonderful creative responses aimed at all members of our society, expressing solidarity and comfort for those seeking freedom from danger and information and connection to those seeking to prevent The Other from coming to our shores. Brave New Word has a new production that seeks to add its voice to this complicated subject matter. 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 have a change to interview Ruth and chat about this exciting new Australian play. My questions are typically complex, and Ruth has come up with some delightful and interesting answers to these questions. Here is a thoughtful playwright speaking about a very difficult matter.

LT: It has been said that the question “Are immigrants a threat to Australia?” should be reframed to be “What does our obsession with the immigrant threat tell us about the weakness of Australia?” How does your play, Asylum address this question?

RF: Asylum is a play about where people go to when under pressure. Some flee literally, some retreat to their rigid value system where they feel safe, some act out against authority, some fall prey to mental illness, others do other things. It is a play about human nature in this respect.I assume your question is directed at the irony that we as a nation of immigrants are terrified of anyone different. One of the stories Asylum presents is the case of a person seeking a protection visa in our country. On the page he is asked questions and simply answers them. As we watch Hajir answer, people will listen and make up their own minds about him. They will bring their prejudgment and opinions to the listening. Some will believe him, others will not. Some will sympathize, others will not. They may or may not be reminded of times they have lied themselves to get what they need. This subplot of the play does not address your question directly but simply puts an interview on stage and allows the audience be confronted with their own preconceptions. Whether these represent weaknesses or not is not for me to judge. If I did I’d be guilty of the same vice as my characters.


LT: It is an absurdity that immigrants are equated with the terrorists they are fleeing from. But it is also an ideological fantasy to imagine an immigrant’s authenticity is that of a subjugated, good, innocent Other. They are, inside their absurdity, as ridiculous as we are. How does Craig’s conflicts with those in his life allow him to see his own customs as eccentric, filled with weirdness and arbitrariness?

RF: Craig’s flaw is that he sees the world as black and white. There is only one version of the truth and that is represented by ‘what happened’. He makes no allowance for a person’s context. As the character’s stories unfold before him he is confronted with how adherence to his values has cost him his relationship with his ex-wife and also his son. As Hajir shares his experiences Craig sees that, beneath their respective eccentric customs, they parallel his own life. The play is more about what we have in common than our differences and it is this commonality that is the source of the shift we see in Craig.


LT: Each confrontation with a stranger should bring us closer to the stranger in ourselves. It should help us see that we “are” our way of life and that our customs and rituals are not natural. This is a kind of break with the reality we are familiar with in a Brechtian style. Do you think Craig learns from his life this way, rather than being “educated” to see, which is the way we usually try to help each other understand?

RF: Craig makes a decision at the end of the play that he would not have made at the beginning. This is the result of pressure from all characters in the play: Hajir reveals his life, admits to lying, and ultimately transforms from a dehumanised interviewee to human being; Jason reveals the difficulties he has faced and transforms from difficult child to suffering human; Vikki reveals the depth of her mental illness with the ultimate sacrifice and transforms from a person making excuses and running from responsibility to one who is truly unwell. Craig absorbs the blows and softens. He learns from his life this way. It is not the pleading and cajoling of the characters that change him but rather their sharing of their very human experience.. What is certain is that the confrontations with both the ‘stranger’ and those close to him over the course of the play cause the shift in his thinking.


LT: When you write a play like this, who are you writing for?

RF: When I write I aim to present the character’s truth – so I guess I write for them, my characters. To be honest I put the audience out of my mind until opening night because if I think about the audience it pollutes my writing. Will they like it? Will they be offended by this? Will they understand what I am trying to say? Will I change the world? These questions can divert you from authenticity. Story just exists and I see my role as to present it as it reveals itself to me.


LT: What do you think are the limits theatre imposes on a writer when dealing with the subject of The Other?

RF: I think theatre is well equipped to deal with The Other. Legitimacy is the goal and a writer must research and learn or they risk writing from only their perspective. The same is true for the Director and cast. 

Further, the intimacy and immediacy of theatre works in favour. A play is written to be performed so it necessarily involves an audience to be complete. Putting credible characters on stage twenty feet from an audience humanises them in a way that books or film cannot. When you write a play, this form and intimacy is understood. There are many ‘Others’ in this play. Jason is ‘othered’ by his propensity for drugs and childhood disorders. Vikki is ‘othered’ by mental illness. Hajir is ‘othered’ because he is from a different culture. In my opinion the theatre is the perfect place to throw these people together and watch what happens.