Review: The Bone Sparrow (Pilot Theatre touring) Derby Theatre

The audience at Derby Theatre tonight is made up mostly of young adults all here to watch The Bone Sparrow – a new stage adaption of Zana Fraillon’ s popular novel about the fates of displaced Rohingya refugees in a remote camp in Australia. Constructed of internal narratives reflecting on the incarcerated boy hero Subhi’s world view and events that erupt from his passion for drawing and story telling and his relationships with his family – minus Father – one would imagine that a stage adaptation would be a challenge.

But Pilot Theatre in a co-production with York Theatre Royal, Belgrade Theatre Coventry, Derby Theatre and Mercury Theatre Coventry rises to the challenge in a faithful adaptation by S, Shakhidharan. This is the third in a series of plays co-produced by Pilot with these theatres, other productions being Marjorie Blackman’s Noughts + Crosses adapted by Sabrina Mahfouz and Alex Wheatle’s Crongton Knights adapted by Emteaz Hussain.

The Bone Sparrow proves to be a fairly lengthy play that definitely rewards patience and concludes with a dramatic and moving second act that involves a fire break out and riot in what is essentially a prison camp for persecuted and violated forgotten human beings. The performances throughout are solid and believable and much theatrical use is made of projection and puppetry as well as constantly changing internment camp vistas that suggest entrapment, danger, loneliness, despair, potential and metaphorical freedoms and the outside world and its periodic visitors. Original music (Arun Ghosh) is a key part of the presentation. The dramatic whole is often very visually poetic with the sea featuring as a reminder of both journeys and freedom.

Subhi “Sometimes, at night, the dirt outside turns into a beautiful ocean. The Night Sea. As red as the sun and as deep as the sky…. I’m gonna see the sea. Feel it. Taste it. The real sea, someday. When me and Maa and Queeny are free.” Poetic lines like these make the heart yearn and the theatre such a brilliant vehicle for expression and compassion. The rapt and silent young audience tonight hang on every word and circumstance of the characters on stage.

The stage text makes full sense of the Rohingya (a Muslim ethnic minority group from Myanmar) refugees’ inhuman experience and deprivation in lines like “There are only fourteen pairs of real shoes in this whole entire camp, even though there must be about nine hundred pairs of feet.” “We’ve had food shortages for the last four days and have only been getting half scoops.” “For a bit a teacher cam and taught everyone. But then the Jackets said it was too expensive and there were too many kids.”

Zana Fraillon’s Bone Sparrow characters are brought engagingly and sympathetically to life by Siobhan Athwal (Queenie/boy one/young Anka), Yaamin Chowdhury (Subhi), Kiran L Dadlani (Maa/Mirka/Zara), Elmi Rashid Elmi (Eli/head boy/soldier), Mary Roubos (Jimmie), Mackenzie Scott (Beaver/soldier), Jummy Faruq (doctor/duck/detainee/ baby Anka/adult Anka), and Dervish Kishore (Ba/Nasir/Harvey/Oto). Director Esther Richardson brings great clarity to the ever changing scenes that move from realism to symbolism throughout. Miriam Nabarro’s claustrophobic set of wire walls and doors overshadowed by barbed wire perfectly captures the tale of the forlorn world of the captives.

Pilot Theatre’s Assistant Director Sirazul Islam relates his own lived refugee experience in the playscript and I present part of it here word for word because I feel it is vital in understanding the key points of the play and thereby much more important than anything I could express not having had this traumatic experience.

“The treatment of refugees is presented quite accurately in The Bone Sparrow, since Subhi doesn’t know how he’s supposed to be treated in the world per se. He has some ideas but he hasn’t lived in the outside world. And that’s an issue for many people in the refugee camps and in detention centres around the world, including myself. I didn’t know when I was in a refugee camp that this was not how we were supposed to be treated, because we hadn’t seen life outside. I was born in a refugee camp and I spent my entire childhood in a refugee camp. For many of these people is quite hard for them to recognise the difference between what life is supposed to be and how it is, and their human rights. For example the right to medication, the right to education – we didn’t know we had these rights. We didn’t know these rights existed.” Sirazul is an active part of the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.

The Bone Sparrow runs at Derby Theatre until Saturday 19th March. Go and experience it. It could be a life changer and is certainly relevant to the refugee crises and sanctuary seekers in the world today.

The Bone Sparrow is currently on a UK tour and will be at The Belgrade Theatre Coventry 22-26 March.

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