'Less like a wall': negotiating asylum in contemporary Australian and UK reality theatre
This thesis takes as its starting point Elaine Scarry’s theorisation of the benign room, which enables civilisation by acting as a filtering mediator between the body and the world. With this theoretical underpinning, I explore how contemporary Australian and UK reality theatre about asylum navigates and interprets what I have termed necrocivilisation (society predicated on the impermeable or overly porous cell rather than the room). Important work on performance and asylum has proliferated over the past twenty years, including compelling investigations of several plays discussed in the present project. This thesis draws on but also recasts these insights into ethics and political expediency, bearing witness, hypervisibility, and hospitality. The porosity of borders is a central concern in this burgeoning body of work, and this thesis will serve to illuminate past and future research by way of an extensive analysis of filtered and filtering boundaries in contemporary theatre about asylum. It offers a framework for reading these plays based on the concept of the filter, a metaphor that manifests in various ways (from sieve-like boats to the bodies of hunger strikers to plastic carpet runners) as the plays under investigation employ it to comprehend and communicate the individual and collective implications of necrocivilisational boundary production. Australia and the UK are linked by Anglo colonial histories, theatre traditions, and the migratory imaginaries of both are intensely shaped by the sea. Given these connections between the two liberal democracies, as well as the tendency of European states to look to Australia’s hardline asylum policies as a guide, an examination of Australian asylum theatre alongside UK examples provides insight into continuities but also often subtle but significant points of divergence. The thesis examines three settings of asylum filtering: the journey and arrival, the holding cell, and civilisation. Each of these Parts contains two chapters focusing on two to three plays produced in Australia and the UK respectively. ‘Part I: Vessels’ examines plays involving both porous and impermeable vehicles that convey asylum seekers toward hoped-for security in the UK and Australia, and contextualises encounter on shores characterised as points of siege. Examining the Scarrian room’s carceral perversion, ‘Part II: Cells’ locates the non-arrival of immigration detention and other carceral asylum measures in the filtering devices that construct and justify material and discursive cages for people seeking refuge. Finally, ‘Part III: Civilisation’ investigates plays that take for their subject Australian and UK civil society and its relationship to people seeking asylum. I argue that filters utilised in the plays I discuss frame how necrocivilisation thrives in each of these settings, and, importantly, how each play proposes to resist it. The thesis as a whole demonstrates that the filter as lens to investigate physical and discursive boundaries leads to important insights into both the power and limitations of theatre of asylum in western liberal democracies.
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