Theatre review: Saplings, Sydney Festival

Stories of young people in the youth justice system.
Saplings. Image is three young men on stage, one seated on the ground, two standing and looking down at him. They are all behind a large net-like curtain.

In the course of researching Saplings, Yuwaalaraay playwright Hannah Belanszky spent a year travelling NSW speaking to young people who had experienced the justice system in some way, whether through interactions with the police, the courts or periods of imprisonment (or all of the above). The play is fictional – how closely any part of it adheres to real life stories is unclear – but Berlanszky aimed to write fiction grounded in the real lives of young people. 

The result is a series of vignettes that are by turns moving, upsetting and, perhaps unexpectedly, strikingly funny. They are accompanied by music from young people also within the criminal justice system, an example of art transcending tragic personal circumstances. This is a world in which a mi goreng or a broken phone can mean the difference between freedom and incarceration. Characters are presented with a legal system that is more Beckettian than Kafkaesque; days in court are characterised not by byzantine complexity, but rather the tedium of waiting around for matters to be called and for lawyers who may or may not arrive. 

Questions of guilt and innocence are, at least in the protagonists’ view, somewhat beside the point. In one scene, a young man excited for his first day in court kicks around the idea of pleading guilty, a course advocated by his father, or not guilty, which is recommended by his lawyer. As audience members, we are given little indication as to whether or not he is guilty; indeed, we don’t even know the charge. One may think these are important matters, but they don’t seem terribly important to him – he appears to think of the plea as just part of the drama of the moment.

On one level, it is unsurprising that young people would treat the court as a kind of theatrical game, but it is one with tragic consequences. Perhaps even more upsetting is the young man who is trepidatious about release – he will lose contact with his friends in prison and has nowhere else to go. 

Read: Book review: Women & Children, Tony Birch

The stories are performed by four young actors, Maliyan Blair, Nyasha Ogden, Ioane Sa’ula and Wesley Patten, each of whom is called upon to demonstrate their aptitude for comedy and drama. They are all incredibly talented and charismatic, with assurance that belies their intimidating youth. Credit must also go to director Abbie-lee Lewis for translating this raw talent into a coherent whole. 

ATYP, The Rebel Theatre (The Thirsty Mile)
Sydney Festival

Presented by ATYP and Youth Action
Writer: Hannah Belanszky
Director: Abbie-lee Lewis
Dramaturg: Jane FitzGerald
Co-Set and Costume Designer: Angela Doherty
Co-Set and Lighting Designer: Morgan Moroney 
Composer and Sound Designer: Michael Weir

Fight director: Tim Dashwood
Production manager: Harry Dowling
Stage manager: Milly Grindrod
Producer: Hayden Tonazzi

Workshop facilitator: George Kemp
Cast: Maliyan Blair, Nyasha Ogden, Ioane Sa’ula, Wesley Patten

Saplings will be performed until 4 February 2024.

Ned Hirst is a lawyer and writer based in Sydney whose work has appeared in Overland, The Australian Law Journal and elsewhere. He tweets at @ned_hirst.