The intoxicating melody of an accordion fills La Mama’s Courthouse as Hotel Bonegilla re-emerges on the Melbourne theatre scene. Audiences are transported to decades gone by, where the issue of post-war migration weighed heavily upon the minds of ‘everyday’ Australians. Yet, as the play progresses, audiences find themselves questioning their own definition of what it means to be Australian – in a time where the complexities of national identity seem as poignant as ever.
Hotel Bonegilla traces the struggles of a group of diverse Europeans as they transition from refugees to ‘New Australians’. The activity centres around the Bonegilla Migrant Centre, which operated as the hub of migrant processing between 1947-1971. As each scene progresses, the audience becomes totally attached to the centre’s newest arrivals, forcing us to examine our own privileges and question our potential prejudices.
Tes Lyssiotis has undeniably created a piece of theatre that resonates within audiences on a thought-provoking level. The play effortlessly moves from sombre to humorous without any jarring transitions. At no point was there a feeling that Lyssiotis was slipping into stereotypes for moments of pure comedic relief, as their snippets of hilarity were strongly reinforced by the complex personalities each character exhibited. The choice to include dialogue in different languages exemplifies the significance of this play, that is, understanding the alienation that stems from not understanding what is being spoken to you. It is story-telling in its most engaging form – unashamedly honest.
The play’s capabilities are only heightened when paired with Laurence Strangio’s direction and set design. The ingenious incorporation of the chalkboard and the subsequent scene titles scrawled upon it only reinforced the educational potential of the piece, reminding us that not only are the characters within Bonegilla the students, but the audience too.
The entire cast is to be commended for their ability to heighten the magic of Bonegilla. Sean Paisley Collins, Tatiana Kotsimbos, Luca Romani, Alex Tsitopolous, Loukia Vassiliades and Martina Viglietti shone as an ensemble, never dulling the presence of those around them. Each performer skilfully employed their accent, and while there were some moments where it seemed to slip, it was never enough to lose the believability that was established from the outset. A quick glance around the room solidified the fact that everyone was enthralled at every moment, their eyes attached to the group’s movements without faltering once.
Furthermore, Madeline Nibali’s costumes were well-suited to the aims of the piece, allowing the cast to moderate their level of agency depending on the amount of clothing they had on, and the way in which they chose to wear it. It was an incredible way of displaying subtle differences in emotion and social standing without supremely obvious costume changes. This synchronised well with Dave Evan’s accordion, whose nostalgic melodies underpinned each scene without shattering the fragility of certain moments. Additionally, Jason Crick’s decision to bathe the stage of the Courthouse with warm light ensured that the promise of Australian sunshine always remained in the foreground of our thoughts.
To put it simply; if you have the chance, go and see Hotel Bonegilla. The play expertly navigates the plethora of emotions that present themselves in migration stories in a way that fosters productive questioning about our own identity. While they’re not always stories of unwavering hope and optimism, they are certainly important to discuss – no matter what decade it is.