By Daniel KeeneDrama

Boxman

This powerful one-man play is designed to be performed in an intimate space, with the actor speaking directly to the audience.

‘Home owner’ and survivor Ringo is a former child soldier, a character who has ‘lived many lives’. Displaced from his African homeland and instilled in his new one, a temporary shelter in downtown Footscray, he is a refugee from horrors he has been forced to perpetrate.

‘One morning I woke up and everything I knew was gone. One morning I woke up and I didn’t have a name.’

Writing in the Age, Cameron Woodhead praised the script’s lightness of touch, juxtaposed with its dark material. He said, ‘Through rhythm and repetition, Keene’s script constructs what appears at times to be clowning, but is in fact a mirage above an emotional wasteland – a dissociative fugue, hovering over the kind of grief that can suck the air out of a room.’

Portrait of Daniel Keene

Daniel Keene

Daniel Keene has written for the theatre since 1979. He has won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for Drama twice, the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Drama three times, the South Australian Literary Award for Drama, the Wal Cherry Play of the Year Award and the Sumner Locke Elliot Prize (New York).

He has also been awarded, with Ariette Taylor, the Kenneth Myer Medallion for the Performing Arts for his contribution to Australian theatre with the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project. His work has been presented at the Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide International Arts Festivals and at the Melbourne Theatre Company and the Sydney Theatre Company.

Daniel is currently writing plays under commission for The Bell Shakespeare Company and the Melbourne Theatre Company.

Judges’ report

Daniel Keene is an uncommonly courageous and eloquent writer with the power to graft the emotional being of his often desperately isolated characters into a shared experience. Keene’s solo performance text, Boxman, gives voice to Ringo, an African refugee whose ruptured life – whose ‘many lives’ – as a child soldier, has left his body and spirit disoriented and disconnected. Through the universal and personal analogy of ‘home’, Keene layers Ringo’s telling in an almost musical composition until his identity and memory can aspire to unity in a theatrical communion with his audience.

Extract

To get you thinking and talking about the 21 titles in the running for these awards, we’ve commissioned some of Australia’s favourite literary bloggers to tell us what they think. Reviewers' opinions are entirely their own, subjective and do not reflect the views of the judges.

Boxman, a one-person play featuring Terry Yeboah and directed by Matt Scholten, premiered in November 2011 at the Big West Festival, for which it was commissioned. It’s a heart-warmingly progressive thing when a successful, established playwright such as Daniel Keene writes a new work for an emerging community-based, contemporary arts festival.

Boxman is a many-layered monologue that circles immense themes – giving voice to the voiceless, opening up the experience of what it is to ‘wake up one morning in another country’ and questioning what is required for individuals, and nations, to reconcile with a violent past.

All we can ask of each other is the kind of courtesy you show to a stranger. We could get to know one another, one little step at a time. Beginnings are always difficult.

The length, poetry and pathos of this script set quite a challenge for Terry Yeboah, the actor for whom it was written. The play is confronting, telling as it does the story of a young African man, now called Ringo, forced to leave his war-torn country.

It’s the name everyone calls me now. It’s not my real name. It sounds a little like my real name, but the police can’t pronounce my real name, so they call me Ringo.

Ringo lives in a box ‘constructed of cardboard, plastic sheeting, rope, blankets, odd bits of wood, sheets of corrugated iron’, nestled in a public park behind a railway station in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

I know the name of the country where I was born. But that country is not my nation. My nation was my family. I have no nation any more.

I belong nowhere, which is here.

He moves back to his box and stands beside it.

This is my house. I built it with my own hands. […] It looks small, but to me … it’s vast. […] Home is just an idea. But it’s an idea that you live inside, instead of an idea that lives inside you.

Grief is close to the surface of this story of a displaced man mourning the loss of his parents and sister, of his country, of the chance to grow healthily from childhood into manhood; wrenched instead into one of the darkest realms of the adult world, active ‘duty’ as a wartime soldier. Boxman draws quite concretely on the story of Peter Pan: Ringo is shadowed by a ‘lost boy’ – the child-soldier he was forced to become. I wasn’t sure how to get my head around the metaphoric threads woven drawn from this very English story of intense loneliness (though Barrie himself was a Scotsman) and the equally British reference to the Beatles. Both, however, serve as ‘wake up’ moments in the hypnotic flow of the poetic narrative with its intense minor key and, perhaps, offer both a bridge between cultures and a reminder of the colonial impact of western imperial and capitalist culture on the African continent: the root of most wars not only there, but across the globe.

There is always the risk of pounding the audience with a kind of relentlessness in a monologue, especially one with such heavy and moving themes as Boxman. Keene’s confidence in Yeboah’s charisma, talent and timing show in the dark, almost wry humour woven through the long narrative, structured to allow the audience to breathe through the heart-in-throat intensity.

There are some who don’t like me being here. I ruin the scenery. Have you looked at the scenery around here? I think I add to the scenery.

I read in reviews that the essence of good clowning supported this aspect of the script. Music woven through the piece – with Ringo singing directly to the audience and offering the comfort of a repeated refrain – also provides breathing room and space for the audience to feel the story being told and to be carried in its rhythm. There is something of the fugue about the whole script: repetition and recapitulation kept fresh by the poetic quality of the language.

Perhaps it’s simply that I think every line in a play deserves the same attention as every line in a poem. – Daniel Keene

The script is prefaced with a translation of the poem ‘People’, by Russian wordsmith and dramatist Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

No people are uninteresting,
Their fate is like the chronicle of planets.

Nothing in them is not particular,
And planet is dissimilar from planet.

We are alone, Ringo’s story is his alone, and yet what separates him, and us, from the universal – from war and loss, and from the collective longing for love, company, safety, meaning, family, healing, home, a name; from the ancient question: do you know who I am? – is as flimsy as the walls of a cardboard box. Yet cardboard or not, such walls conceal a depth of tragedy and travesty that many of us in this ‘lucky country’ can barely comprehend – like something from ‘another planet’. The only bridge to such suffering and loneliness is compassion. The recent commitment of our political leaders to the repugnant cruelty of off-shore, indefinite mandatory detention for refugees legally seeking asylum only proves how desperately such voices are needed, and how far from compassion we have fallen.

I can tell you about me. It’s all I have to tell you about. But how interesting is another person?

When you have a family, you have someone to listen to you, someone you can listen to. […] I hold my breath and I listen for voices I will never hear again.


Clare Strahan blogs at Words words they’re all we’ve got to go on and is a regular blogger for Overland, where she is a contributing editor.

Clare is also a director and ‘occasional actor’, and creator of Literary Rats.

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