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Jailed Australian inspires Darwin Festival drama

Richard Watts

After learning about the plight of Jock Palfreeman, Samantha Young was inspired to write a play about his imprisonment.
Jailed Australian inspires Darwin Festival drama

After learning about the plight of Jock Palfreeman, Samantha Young was inspired to write a play about his  imprisonment.

When Schapelle Corby was arrested in Bali in October 2004 for the importation of 4.2 kg of marijuana, the degree of interest in her subsequent trial and prison sentence meant that she became one of a handful of Australians known to all – like Kylie – by her first name only.

Her case stands in stark contrast with the plight of Jock Palfreeman, a young Australian arrested in Sophia, Bulgaria in December 2007, and currently serving a 20 year sentence for a murder he says he did not commit. Few Australians have heard of him, and his case has generated relatively little media attention – certainly not the blanket coverage of the Corby case.

One woman who is extremely familiar with Palfreeman’s story is Darwin-based actor, writer, filmmaker and director Samantha Young.

‘I read an article on the internet that compared Palfreeman to Schapelle Corby, and it was talking about how we’re very active as a nation about the Schapelle case, but here is another person who is languishing in prison, who also claims they’re innocent, and I became really kind of enthralled with it, to be honest. I just felt, from what I initially read, I just thought the evidence was very clearly on Palfreeman’s side and I was incensed; I just couldn’t understand how this could happen,’ she told ArtsHub.

Palfreeman, now 26, was sentenced to 20 years in prison after a Bulgarian court found him guilty of murder with hooliganism and attempted murder in late 2009, but even a cursory look at the case indicates that his original and subsequent trials were highly irregular.

Palfreeman claims to have come to the aid of two young Roma men who were being assaulted by a gang of football hooligans, and says he has no memory of stabbing anyone – let alone in the back, as local media were to claim. Bulgarian police failed to secure the crime scene and did not interview crucial witnesses – including the Roma youths. Evidence was lost or not presented in court; key witnesses changed their statements. In short, the prosecution’s case was deeply flawed, but still Palfreeman languishes in jail. To date he has served six years of his sentence, most of it in the notoriously run-down Sofia Central Prison.  

Initially moved to write to Palfreeman, Young soon realised she wanted to do more than just pen letters – she wanted to make his story the basis of her first full-length play.

‘I was actually writing Palfreeman for quite a few months before I thought that it was something I would make theatrical. I never wrote to him with the intention of creating a work out of it; it’s just something that was supplementary when I was actually scheduled to be making another project and that fell through. My mentor at the time asked me, not are there any other plays you’re interested in; they asked me “what are you passionate about?” and I said “well I’m passionate about this injustice”.’

The resulting play, entitled To the End of Reckoning, will be presented as a rehearsed reading at this month’s Darwin Festival. Given her personal interest in the case – Young went so far as to fly to Sophia to meet with Palfreeman – she is the first to admit there may be an element of bias in the script.

‘Initially my work was going to be completely verbatim; it was going to be a verbatim piece of theatre, but I realised that even through doing that I couldn’t be 100% honest about it because I was still the person selecting the information that would later go into the play. So now I am a character in the show, and by having myself as a character in the show I openly address my own bias.

‘I wonder if it’s too meta?’ she adds, laughing.

Palfreeman himself has given Young his blessing. ‘He thought it was hilarious,’ she says, when asked how Jock responded to her request to write about his plight. ‘He thought it was hilarious and he said “go for it”.’

Having lived in the Top End for five years, Young said she is delighted to be able to present this play reading of To the End of Reckoning at the Darwin Festival.

‘The Festival is an incredible time to be in Darwin. It is kind of alive and exciting; it brings up a lot of work that we wouldn’t get to see otherwise, and that is so important, because otherwise we’re only referencing stuff that we make ourselves. It’s really important to have that diversity of work. And then yeah, it does support local artists and musicians and visual artists ...  It really is an exciting time when the whole of city becomes engaged in the arts. And I think that what’s wonderful about the Darwin community is that the Darwin community are theatre attenders – people in the general public in Darwin go to the arts; in fact they go to everything. People in Darwin don’t like to be kept indoors.’

It’s an outlook that Jock Palfreeman no doubt shares.

To the End of Reckoning

By Samantha Young

Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin

25 August


Darwin Festival 2013

8 – 25 August


About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts