The Age of Bones is a rich and moving production, reflecting with dark humour on Australia’s strict border policy and the humans who get caught in its cruel, bureaucratic machine. Swerving freely between fantasy and the real world, the play follows the epic story of an Indonesian child who is convinced to work for people smugglers, before finding himself detained in a prison “down under” – under the sea, that is.

The work is an international collaboration between Australian writer Sandra Thibodeaux and Indonesian theatre company Teater Satu. The cast includes both Australian and Indonesian performers, and was written in consultation with families from Nusa Tenggara (eastern Indonesia), with creative development on Rote island and premiering in Teater Satu’s hometown of Lampung, Sumatra. It’s a pleasure to see a work of such artistic rigor, international scale and storytelling ambition in the relatively intimate space of La Mama Courthouse. The Age of Bones is not only relevant to the perpetual terror of Australian border control politics, but specific enough in its project to stand out amongst other shows that address the issue. 

The script is performed in both English and surtitled Indonesian, switching between the Kafka-esque journey of the boy Ikan (meaning fish) into the aquatic judicial system down under, and the dire wait of his parents back in Indonesia, who don’t learn what happened to him for over two years. Bilingual work is always demanding, and with occasional surtitling glitches can verge on alienating, but the strength of the story and the energy of the performers sustains interest and rewards attention. We are led by a narrating old man, who sets the scene with his apprentice dalang (puppeteer), though occasionally detouring into light-hearted arguments about the puppetry, or funny stories from his own life. 

The Age of Bones speaks to true stories of jailed Indonesian teenagers and the ridiculous practice of wrist X-ray examinations that was used to ‘prove’ they were not minors until as late at 2013. The wall outside the theatre bears a news story from 2011 of two boys who were lured into working on asylum seeker boats, captured and placed in a high-security Brisbane prison for months. The writer’s note mentions how this story struck a chord not least because Thibodeaux’s own son was the very same age. The play attempts to find the humanity in this dry assembly of facts, compassionately imagining the trauma of both the lost boy and his equally lost parents, unable to mourn without a body to bury. In the scenes spoken in English, it turns to a satire of Australian border policy, the heartlessness and cluelessness of the culpable officers, and a critique of the politicians idly allowing human rights abuses to occur on our shores. 

Traditional Indonesian shadow puppetry plays an important role in the show, illustrating and retelling the story in the narration between scenes. Though shadow puppetry is iconic as part of Indonesian and Javanese cultural heritage, the puppets are not artefacts – they are full of life and humour. Manipulated skillfully by trained dalangs I Made Gunanta and I Wayan Sira, the movements are fluid, clever and often hilarious. 

Dann Barber’s set is a sailboat broken into moveable geometric pieces, a kind of pacific minimalism. White sails double as screens for a complex projection system, with ambitious and enchanting video design by Mic Gruchy delivered from both front and back (conveniently offering a light for the puppets to cast shadows). Philip Lethlean’s lighting design was evocative and careful, and the same could be said of Panos Couros’ sound work, which the program notes tell us was largely recorded on Rote Island. The entire production design is cohesive and precise, if occasionally a bit of a sensory overload.

Teater Satu formed the majority of a cohesive and joyous cast, joined by the broader Australian accents of Darwin-based Kadek Hobman and Ella Watson-Russell. The intersection of performance styles onstage is fascinating to watch, and as a white spectator to an Indonesian story, their presence marks a point of entry. Imas Sobariah stood out as Ibu, the grief-stricken mother, and Deri Efwanto brought a charismatic presence as the kooky elder storyteller. Hobman’s performance was delightful as Ikan’s erratic shark-jail mate, and later as the shrill octopus-judge. 

This well-paced orchestration of complex elements revealed experience and patience on the part of the directors, Iswadi Pratama and Alex Galeazzi. The rhythm was allowed to sometimes feel loose and improvisational, but the storytelling did not lag, nor was time lost on messy transitions. I sometimes had the feeling of watching a Disney film, which I mean as a compliment. Music, visuals, and performance worked together in a way I rarely see onstage, with a kind of earnestness and compassion that made me leave the theatre with hope rather than despair. 

Most of all, Thibodeaux is well deserving of the NT Literary Award this play was given. Her writing is accessible, it is researched with diligence, it is technically and dramatically precise, and it resists the dehumanisation and criminalisation of non-white people by the Australian Border Force. Where the reality of its subject matter becomes too dark for us to see, so to speak, humour and fantasy reach towards this gap in our collective understanding. We cannot truly know what it was like to be one of those teenagers in a high-security Brisbane prison, but we can practice imagination and love, and this is all we have.