The Bard on Christmas Island

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Playwright Helen Machalias… “The idea came to me because of the way Shakespeare’s Prospero, exiled on an island, tries to recreate a new kingdom there.” Photo: Shelly Higgs

WHEN last we met playwright Helen Machalias, she was an Arts NSW officer and working with The Street Theatre on her first full-length play that dealt with rape on a campus. 

Cut to 2020 and she’s working at the YWCA Canberra as executive director, communication, advocacy and engagement, living in Canberra with her husband and the mother to 16-month-old son Alex.

She’s also back at The Street, with a developmental showing of “Barren Ground”, her dramatic exploration of the asylum-seeker experience in Australia.

The play begins in December 2010 with the SIEV 221 shipwreck at Flying Fish Cove off Christmas Island. That was real, with 48 asylum seekers, mostly from Iraq and Iran, perishing and 42 making it to shore.

We meet survivors Prospero, his daughter Miranda and fellow passenger Ariel, assisted by Caliban and other Christmas Islander locals. 

Sounds familiar? Of course it does, they’re from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” a play beginning with another boat in another ocean. 

Politicians’ voices and media reports flood the airwaves and there’s even a shock-jock prize for guessing how many funerals were paid for by the government, but Machalias believes she’s been bipartisan rather than satirical in her commentary, since from 2010 to 2018 both main political parties were responsible for Christmas Island. 

Act I dramatises the catastrophic shipwreck, with Christmas Islanders trying to help people by throwing them lifejackets.

Act II culminates in the death of a refugee but by this time Prospero has joined the other side and become a senior administrator responsible for the management of the detention centre.

Act III, set in 2018, sees the island closed and the refugees moved to Villawood.

“The idea came to me because of the way Shakespeare’s Prospero, exiled on an island, tries to recreate a new kingdom there…He is not a benign character and his relationship with his daughter was very troubling to me.” 

There’s no handsome Prince Ferdinand for this Miranda and Machalias goes in where angels fear to tread, repeating the plot-line from “The Tempest” where Caliban assaults Miranda. Given that Miranda is probably Iranian and Caliban Chinese or Malay, she’s game.

“I could never have guessed when I started writing that Christmas Island would be reopened for the Biloela family and now it’s being used to quarantine people during COVID-19, so I believe that it adds another layer to the play, the cruelty is still ongoing.”

And no, the famous final scene of reconciliation in “The Tempest” does not happen – there is no Brave New World.

“Barren Ground”, online, 5pm, Friday, September 4, 120 minutes. Book at

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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