Children of the Sea is the latest production from emerging director Jay Emmanuel. Audiences follow the journey of five protagonists aged in their early teens travelling on an Indonesian smuggling boat to Australia, and the challenges which confront them en route.

The production is at its strongest as intimate ensemble piece. The five main characters are Mir from the Pakistani province of Balochistan (played by Satchen Lucido), Rami from the Congo (Harry Hamzat), Noor from Iran (Maniya Amin Dehghan), and the youngest, Hawa, from Burundi (Happyness Yasini). Four actors intermittently appear as unnamed adult passengers, while musicians and co-composers Kavisha Mazzella (voice and bouzouki) and Pavan Kumar Hari (drums) take on minor supporting roles.

Maniya Amin Dehghan, Harry Hamzat and Happyness Yasini in a dress rehearsal of Children of the Sea. Photograph © Dan Grant

Written and directed by Emmanuel, the focus of the narrative is on two former child soldiers, Mir and Rami, who reveal their experiences in a particularly strong scene of paired monologues. We also see Mir’s mother and brother, and it becomes apparent that the tensions within his family drove him to flee his homeland. Personal conflict becomes merged with political unrest, when the absence and later confirmed death of Mir’s dissident father produces ripples and splits between the brothers and mother, driving the sons to enlist.

Children of the Sea is most effective when the actors are all but alone on stage. Although not highly trained, the young performers have a powerful presence when facing directly out at the audience and relating tales adapted from their stories and those of their peers.

The production (which features set and costume design by Bryan Woltjen) also evokes the epic strand of French multicultural theatre, including Peter Brook (whose classic The Mahabharata is being reworked by Emmanuel) and Théâtre du Soleil’s saga Le Dernier Caravansérail (Melbourne Festival, 2005), which also dealt with refugees from war-torn lands crossing oceans. As in these works, the set for Children of the Sea is more suggestive than literal. Objects and scenic items are reconfigured to produce stage effects. Emmanuel reprises Théâtre du Soleil’s use of billowing fabric to represent waves for his own chaotic storm sequence. In an especially moving scene that follows the storm, the now bundled up cloth comes to stand in first for Rami’s body, and then that of Mir’s brother. The wrapping up of the fabric, accompanied by singing, becomes an act of mourning.

Kavisha Mazzella and Pavan Kumar Hari. Photograph © Dan Grant

Emmanuel’s theatrical flourishes are not always affective within the slightly cramped Subiaco Arts Centre amphitheatre. This may however partly be by design. Although influenced by Brook and Théâtre du Soleil, Emmanuel’s style is closer to contemporary French clown, mime and physical theatre. Despite the trauma depicted, Emmanuel and his cast maintain a light touch. Even the fights seem at times naively enacted and almost childlike.

Children of the Sea is therefore above all else an act of generous, effective storytelling. It shines when the focus is on the voice and the gently poetic, melancholy narratives of its protagonists. It is indeed tempting to see the production as a reprise of Tim Winton’s own act of wistfully playful storytelling Cloudstreet, which premiered at the Perth Festival in 1998 and was revived in 2020. As in that production, the strongest element of the performance lies in monologues delivered by young characters wise beyond their years, who gaze out at the waters and stars that surrounded them.

Children of the Sea is an ambitious premiere, and it does not quite achieve all of its aims, but in using the act of creative storytelling to sketch (unlike Cloudstreet) an entirely of non-Anglo community, the production offers an alternative narrative of those twists and turns by which one can come to find a home in Australia.

Children of the Sea runs at the Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth until 20 February

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