One day, the 15-year-old Ikan, who is living in Indonesia with his family, is sent fishing by his mother. But he never returns. This is the premise for Sandra Thibodeaux’s compelling play Age of Bones (Jaman Belulang) which charts young Ikan’s journey as he takes employment on a refugee boat headed to Australia, in order to earn money to feed his family. His journey, however, lands young Ikan on Ashmore Reef where he is incarcerated after authorities mistake him for an adult.
Age of Bones is a visually stunning production. The simplicity of the set, which uses sets of blocks and white sheets to represent sails on a boat effectively takes the audience on a journey from Indonesia to Australia, and back again. It is a bilingual production, using both English and Ikan’s native Indonesian. The use of subtitle projection upon the white sheet sails is an inspired touch that allows the audience to follow the action and dialogue throughout. Snippets of Indonesian throughout the production help the audience to emphasise and reflect on language barriers and Ikan’s lack of comprehension upon his arrival in Australia.
The play uses a deep-sea metaphor throughout, comparing the Australian authorities to deep-sea divers and Ikan’s prison friend to a Hammerhead shark. The most spectacular element of the production is the use of Indonesian shadow puppetry. The puppetry adds an ethereal beauty to the performance in its depiction of a variety of sea creatures. The humorous recurring appearance of a Jonah inspired whale, and the use of sea creatures and an ikan (meaning ‘fish’ in Indonesian) puppet which battle it out during Ikan’s turbulent nightmares are an interesting and captivating way to portray Ikan’s fear and ‘foreignness’ in the unfamiliar environment of Australia. The story moves seamlessly between Indonesia and Australia and the amount that the production manages to do with such a small space and limited set is truly incredible.
The play is visually stunning and touches upon important and contemporary issues regarding asylum seekers and the detainment of refugees. Age of Bones, however, loses its force in that much of the acting and the humour scattered throughout feel forced and non-naturalistic. The interactions between the Dalang (shadow puppeteer) and his mentor and narrator of the production, while initially humorous, begin to lose their charm when subject to repetition. The deep-sea divers chorus of ‘yeah nah’ and ‘nah yeah’ – a satirical jab at Australian colloquialisms – also quickly grew dull. Some of the characters, such as the elderly narrator, went from being endearing and entertaining to feeling stereotypical and contrived as the story wore on.
At the end of the day, the Age of Bones is a powerful and worthwhile production that explores Australia’s refugee problem from an Indonesian perspective. The Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre was an excellent host for the play – I look forward to seeing what else is on at the centre in the future.