Tag Archives: Noelle Janaczewska

116: Songket

15 Jul

Songket is a powerful and disturbing read. Noelle Janaczewska has written a play about cultures colliding, about gender and sexuality and about Australia.


Songket is published alongside This Territory, which makes sense thematically, although the plays have very different styles and moods. Songket is a much more complicated and interesting read, in my opinion.

A songket is a handwoven fabric, patterned with silver or gold thread. It’s a term that describes the weaving as well as the fabric. In Janaczewska’s play, Chan is a young textile designer, brought up in Sydney but with a family who’ve come from Laos. She is a young Australian woman trying to connect with her cultural roots and using her ethnicity to springboard her design career. To do this, she’s been making connections with the Laotian community, including a man from the Hmong community, Koau. Koau misinterprets her friendly gestures as being sexual overtures and rapes her.

This raises real dilemmas for the audience/reader. Can you pardon Koau raping Chan on the grounds of cultural difference? He doesn’t seem a ‘bad’ man and appears to be honestly confused – but what he’s done is terrible and should surely be inexcusable…

KOUA: You’ll go to another world. That’s what this fortune teller told me a long time ago. And that world will have doors that can open by themselves. Whoosh! Doors you don’t even know are there, let you in. Bangkok airport with its big waste of light. [Pause.] Before the plane we were taken into a room to wait. We’re tired and need to sleep. But it’s too bright. I want to turn the lights off, but – Look how stupid I was! A grown man and I didn’t know how to switch off the light.

Janaczewska has made the play more interesting structurally by pinning it to the court case. So we see Chan with her lawyer, Alex, and Koau with his interpreter and defence lawyer, Hayden. Muddying the water further and making it even harder to leap to easy conclusions is Hayden’s ex, Klaudia, whom he has brought in as an expert witness for the defence. Klaudia is an anthropologist and agrees to give evidence on what she knows of Laos and the tribal customs of Hmong tribesmen. This places her in an ethical dilemma as her words are twisted to imply that rape can be a culturally appropriate act.

The courtroom and pre-trial scenes where we see the interpreter’s discomfort and hear the way meaning and intention is distorted are particularly effective.

HAYDEN: As I understand it from your statement, Mr Vang, you’re not denying sexual intercourse took place. Nor that it involved – how shall we put this? An element of roughness.
INTERPRETER: He says that you – that you hurt Miss Chansouk when you – when you / tried to –
KOUA: I’ve told you. She was kicking me. And she bit me too.
INTERPRETER: I’m sorry I upset her.
HAYDEN: It’s extremely important we get this clear. Do you acknowledge penetration took place?
INTERPRETER: [To HAYDEN] I don’t understand the question.
HAYDEN: Okay, we’ll take this one step at a time. Let’s first establish the precise location of Mr Vang’s penis. Was it exposed?
HAYDEN: Outside his pants.
INTERPRETER: [To KOAU] Was your zipper down?
KOAU: Of course.
HAYDEN: Was your penis erect?
INTERPRETER: What direction were you – were you? – Are you and Miss Chansouk being husband and wife?
KOAU: Yes.
INTERPRETER: Towards the sky.

There are no easy answers in Songket. It’s a play that is bound to provoke passionate discussion and argument. A really interesting read on many levels.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 3M, 3F

64: This Territory

24 May

Noelle Janaczewska wrote This Territory as a response to the Cronulla Riots in 2005. She was approached by the director of Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) to write about the issues from the perspectives of young people and spent six months interviewing young people across Sydney.

This Territory

Because This Territory was written as a commission for ATYP it has a large cast of young people and would be a good project for high schools and universities. It tackles themes of inclusivity, asks what being Australian means, and looks at different cultural perspectives.

Janaczewska manages to embed poetry and strong images in the language. It’s there in the chorus of The Voices of Dust:

Then one day, Enki, the ancient Mesopotamian god of craft and wisdom, marshlands,
freshwater and a whole heap of other things,
bored perhaps with all this harmony,
changed the words in people’s mouths,
introduced contention,
and the speech that had been universal and understood by everyone,
broke into a kaleidoscope of different tongues.

Poetry is also there in Apricot’s words:

How long are we going to sit here zipping our heels on the carpet, wondering how much static you need to make a spark?

This isn’t a didactic piece. It doesn’t portray one culture as less worthy than another. It reflects the fears, misconstructions and paranoia that plague us all. And it shows the fragile nature of ‘truth’. Throughout the play, eye-witnesses reconstruct the violent event that started the riot, but each person remembers it differently. This Territory beautifully illustrates the way that what we see is often what we want to see, or what we expect to see, rather than what is actually in front of us.

Publisher: Currency Press (published alongside Songket)

Cast: 9F, 8M + chorus of Voices of the Dust: can be female and/or male

36: The History of Water

26 Apr

The full title of Noelle Janaczewska’s play is The History of Water/Huyen Thoai mot Giong Nuoc (apologies for not knowing how to get the correct Vietnamese symbols for the letters).

Reflection in mirror

The play is an interesting meditation on memories, language, belonging, translation and truth. It’s written in language that is rich with symbols and poetry and is unconcerned with linear narratives or plot. The play is text heavy but written with constant references to the design elements, which include slides, film and water. Noelle Janaczewska is the play’s author and was also the director and designer for the premiere production.

I loved the immediacy of the descriptions and evocations of places.

KATE: I know this city I grew up in. The pavements warped and split open by the hot, dry summers, the front yards full of cars washed and polished every weekend and the thwack of flyscreen doors as children run in and out.

Kate and Ha are two women talking to themselves, to each other and, sometimes, directly to the audience. We never find out how they know each other or what their relationship is. What we know is that Kate grew up in Perth and is a photographer who has travelled to Asia and spent time in Vietnam, trying to know herself better. Ha was born in Vietnam and came to Australia as a young woman. She now works as a translator.

HA: When I began to learn English in Australia, I’m swamped by a fierce sense of loss. Language seems to have drained out of me, like water through sand, and I’ve only the memory of it left. And I begin to panic. Afraid I’ve lost forever the river-banks of my childhood world.

Most of the time they talk in English, but sometimes they talk in Vietnamese. Sometimes we are given a translation, but often we aren’t. We are left feeling the rift between languages that the characters feel.

HA: I live in two languages; like two negatives printed into the one photograph. One image the Vietnamese landscapes of my childhood; the other the English translations of my adult world.

Beneath the thread of their discourse about memory, language and identity, there is another story: of a man who has gone missing. His suitcase of neatly folded clothes all that’s left of him. Both women seem to have known him. He appears to be the link between them, but we never find out who he is, what happened to him or what their relationships were with him. The closest we get is this enigmatic exchange:

HA: Did you know about me, Kate?

KATE: I sensed you there. Nameless in the shadows. And I wanted to ask him, but somehow, the time was never right. And after a while, I realised that there were some things between us better left unsaid.

I like that this play asks more questions than it answers and that it paints pictures with words, evoking places, memories and times. I imagine it would make a beautiful radio play.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 2F