Australia’s experience of rabbit infestation and the myxomatosis virus might seem a sombre place to start exploring the topic of immigration but Emily Steel’s not afraid of the dark.
Having won strong praise for her 2017 Adelaide Fringe show 19 Weeks, a deeply personal play about her own experience with abortion, Steel will tackle the fraught topic of immigration with Rabbits. Drawing on her own experience as a Welsh migrant, Steel will star in the play as a “sort of not entirely nice” version of herself.
“It’s about what it’s like to come from somewhere else and not know what this place is at all, and not know your place in it,” Steel tells The Adelaide Review. Following the story of this fictionalised Steel living with her small family in a house alongside people of diverse backgrounds, Rabbits is analogous of Australia’s own diversity, and a personal exploration of the tribal prejudices we all hold deep down.
Asked whether the prejudices expressed in Rabbits have roots in her own psyche, Steel says that they do and hopes the audience sees a reflection of themselves in that unspoken taboo.
“I think they have at least crossed my mind,” she says. “Sometimes they’re thoughts and you go, ‘Oh! I’m not supposed to have that thought’. I think we all have those, and it’s what we do with them that matters.”
Director Daisy Brown (left) runs through the Rabbits script with Emily Steel (right)
The story of how Rabbits came to be starts shortly after Steel’s own arrival in Australia. Written before 19 Weeks, the play came out of an inSPACE development period awarded to Steel for Rocket Town at the Fringe in 2011.
“I had an idea for a new project that would be inspired by Australia’s rabbit infestation and the introduction of myxomatosis,” Steel says. “A guy called Frank Fenner, who was instrumental in introducing myxomatosis, had given this interview where he said that the human population was so out of control that we would make ourselves extinct in 100 years. The idea was to take all of this stuff and apply it to immigration in Australia and see what came out.”
The development period was difficult as the team dredged up their own experiences with race and unpalatable thoughts.
“We started out in a room exploring these ideas of what prejudice meant to us, what racism we had encountered, and some of those prejudices that we don’t like to admit, but they’re there,” she says. “I think you need to be able to talk about that stuff before you can disperse it. For quite a few days, a lot of the team would go home feeling quite sick, because it’s unpleasant.”
Our deepest prejudices are dark to explore but Steel says that the sheer absurdity of her character’s base fears and statements brings comical absurdity to Rabbits.
“I think people are both absurd and tragic at the same time,” she says. “I think this becomes funny because she says things you’re not supposed to say, and partly because some of the stuff just becomes absurd. There are moments of darkness, some that are full of heart, but there are plenty of moments that our development audiences have laughed at quite a lot.”
While Steel says that her own experience as an immigrant has been relatively painless, one comment that came shortly after winning the inSPACE award in 2011 has stuck with her.
“Somebody actually said to me, ‘coming over here and taking our awards’,” Steel remembers. “He kind of said it like he was joking, but I wasn’t really sure how much he was.”
Asked whether it’s a surprise that such a slight would come from someone in the artistic community, which often views itself as a bastion of enlightened progressivism, Steel says no.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s is only from certain sections of society, because there is some legitimacy to that expression of ‘you have come over here and taken our award.’ There’s something in that that is true! If I had not been here, it may well have been someone from here who got that award. Just because it’s unpleasant doesn’t mean it’s not true.
“The question is, how do we deal with that? It comes up again and again in Rabbits — How do we live together? How do we deal with this? — Because I don’t think we know the answers. It’s not that that person is bad for having said that, or thought that.”
While Steel can understand where the most basic prejudices come from, the more controversial, nationalistic opinions touted by those on the right of politics are harder to relate to.
“The Pauline Hanson idea that all the muslims are going to come over here and outbreed all the non-muslims is completely ridiculous,” she says. “That one is so absurd. I find it very difficult to have any empathy with that one.”
Steel says that digging into her own world-view and the way the world perceives her has been an enlightening process, too.
“I made the discovery, particularly through developing Rabbits, about how many stereotypes I actually fulfil. I mean, I do drink a lot of tea. I do give people tea as a social lubricant. There’s a British reserve that I’ve had to overcome. A lot of that is true.”
Thursday, September 21 to Saturday, October 14
Plant 1, Bowden
Photography: Sia Duff