A Nest of Skunks

An insightful play which would benefit from a more realistic representation of refugees.
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Amanda Maple-Bown as Kristy, Brendan Miles as Stephen and Aanisa Vylet as Sam in A Nest Of Skunks. Photograph via The Depot Theatre.

As our refugee policy descends into ever more dystopian realms, the dystopic imaginary becomes an ever more important tool of social critique. The recent ABC show Cleverman may have included elements of the supernatural, but its depiction of how political leaders and media outlets collaborate to demonise innocent people was all too real. This cynical manufacturing of fear is also at the heart of a new play by James Bailan and Roger Vickery called A Nest of Skunks.

The play opens with a shock jock spewing forth hate from the kitchen radio: “A skunk by any other name still smells foul”. ‘Skunks’ has become the vogue term for refugees, used by the nation’s media and therefore by much of the population.  Listening to the radio is Stephen (Brendan Miles), a refugee hidden away by a ‘skunk handler’ named Lily (Penelope Lee), who risks 15 years in prison for her efforts in saving him from deportation. During the 75 minute thriller, taking place on one night in this safe house, much is revealed about Stephen, his daughter Sam (Aanisa Vylet), and the network which protects them.

The greatest strength of this play is its insights into the politics of othering and crowd psychology. Grains of truth are spread liberally throughout the script, including the ideas that “most people are mean through ignorance” and “If you didn’t exist they’d create some other threat”. The character of Miriam, played by Jeannie Gee, embodies these insights. On her visits to the safe house she uncritically recycles lines she’s heard in the public sphere about refugees “fouling us with their filthy ways.” It’s an accurate portrayal of the disturbing power of politicians and their PR representatives in the media to fuel fear and hate on mass, and very timely in light of the recent resurgence of One Nation.

Aanisa Vylet and Brendan Miles paint a vivid portrait of the tenderness and love felt between father and daughter, while the tense relationship between Kirsty (Amanda Maple-Brown), an immigration official, and Lily, is also very well drawn.

However, the realism and emotional impact of this play were hampered by the decision to have Stephen speak in a grammarless Australian accent (“Me old dog. No good learn”). The play would benefit from casting an actor from a refugee community who could draw on their real life experience as well as a more naturalistic accent. Given the play’s themes and the current political climate, there is a strong case for an Islamic refugee in that role.

Nonetheless, A Nest of Skunks does offer a necessary critique of the politics of fear and an important warning about the dangerous path before us.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

A Nest of Skunks
By James Bailan and Roger Vickery
Director: Travis Green
Set Design and Graphics: Rachel Scane
Lighting Design: Larry Kelly
Cast: Peter Condon, Jeannie Gee, Penelope Lee, Amanda Maple-Brown, Brendan Miles, Aanisa Vylet

The Depot Theatre, Marrickville

3 – 13 August 2016​

Liam McLoughlin
About the Author
Liam McLoughlin is a freelance writer who is keen on satire, activism and the arts. He blogs at Situation Theatre and tweets from@situtheatre.