Men and birds falling out the sky, the hallowed halls of English academia and the dense slums of Nairobi, Kenya. These might all sound totally disconnected but in Flight Paths, a new play written by Julian Larnach, all these things come together.
Directed by Anthea Williams, who won the award for best director for HIR in 2017, Flight Paths has been put through a development process by the National Theatre of Parramatta, this enabled Williams and Larnach to flesh out the nuts and bolts of the never-before-seen play with the cast.
“We had some time around a table with a cast and we were talking about the play and what it means,” said Williams.
For Williams this was about getting down to the core of the play, and finding out what questions the work is posing. Much of the cast are younger actors and the play focuses on the intertwined lives of two young Australians, Emily and Luisa. Naturally then, “it's a play about quests and it's a play about coming of age” notes Williams, but Flight Paths is not just that.
The world of the play is split between Oxford and Kibera, the largest slum in Nairobi, and the play deals with what occurs when Emily and Luisa enter these sites and find that not all is as it seems. This allows for much broader questions of race, international aid and education. However, it is the complexities within these themes that distinguishes Flights Paths from other plays that tackle the same topics.
Notes Williams, “so often when you read plays there's good characters and bad characters. In this play there's no bad characters; there's characters who have different ideas of what good is.”
Rather than seeing Oxford and Kibera as two totally distinct places, the play challenges us to think of the commonalities between the two, as Williams suggests, “when you go really far up Oxford and Kibera don't look that different.”
Such an elevated perspective has also influenced the construction of the play. Rather than have the cost and disruption of significant scene changes breaking up the play, Williams noted that the creative team have had to find other ways to represent these different spaces.
“I think sometimes when people think of Kenya and Nairobi and especially Kibera they think of somewhere really alien,” argued Williams. “But actually we're all people and we've got different cultures but we also have a great deal of similarities and so we needed to create space based on what people were wearing and how people acted.”
While Flight Paths seeks to represent the global issues that we are currently facing, it also speaks directly to an Australian audience and particularly the diverse community that the National Theatre of Parramatta has sought to represent.
As Williams pointed out, “theatre wants to look like how our community looks like and our community isn't all white. So you can have better conversations about who we are and where we're at if you represent the society where we come from.”
Flight Paths includes a stand-out cast of local talent, including Ebony Vagulans in the role of Luisa and Monica Kumar as Anika. While Williams acknowledges that there is a place for colourblind casting, with the focus on race and representation in Flight Paths, that was not the approach Williams took for this production, “We had to cast an African-Australian actress because there's an African-Australian part … and also we needed characters in this play who were white. It was really important that whiteness was represented on stage as well.”
As such, both the construction of the play and the text of the play tackle with the debates over power and privilege that are playing out globally. In the development of the play Williams and the rest of the creative team have been looking at structural power, both in the sense of who has this power but also responses to this. Critical to this is the debate as to whether, as Williams puts it, “if the way forward is to just open up that structural power so there's more diverse faces at the top of it or if it is to completely change the system.”
While there may not be a straightforward answer to this within the play, Williams suggests that this is not the function of theatre, which should rather “set us up as a congregation and gets us all to ask questions about what we want to be, what we want the world to be.”
Flight Paths premieres at Riverside Theatres Parramatta on March 15 and runs until March 24. Buy tickets and find out more here, https://riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP/show/flight-paths/.