How Australian writer Shakthi and York’s Pilot Theatre came together to tell Subhi’s tale from inside a detention centre

Yaamin Chowdhury as Rohingya refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

YORK company Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow is international, not only in its subject matter of asylum seekers but in its journey from page to stage.

Artistic director Esther Richardson and her cast have ‘met’ playwright S. Shakthidharan only on Zoom, although he does plan to travel from Australia to Britain later during the tour of a co-production mounted with York Theatre Royal, Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Colchester.

Shakthi, as he is known for short and on the corner of his Zoom screen for this interview, is a writer, storyteller, composer and film and theatre director-producer, from western Sydney, with Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry.

“The commission came from Esther. She contacted me out of the blue,” says Shakthi. “She’d heard about the play I wrote and premiered in Australia in 2019 [Counting And Cracking], and I think she’d read the script.”

This was no ordinary debut play. Staged by Belvoir and Co-Curious at the 2019 Sydney and Adelaide Festivals, his script won the Victorian Premier’s Literature Prize and the New South Wales Premier’s Nick Enright Prize for Playwriting; the three-hour epic production won seven Helpmann and three Sydney Theatre Awards.

“Esther had been interested in adapting Zana Fraillon’s book for some time and so she approached me,” recalls Shakti. “When I read it, I immediately connected with it because I’d worked with a lot of asylum seekers in Australia and was familiar with the different types of stories that were being told.”

In the story by children and young adults’ novelist Fraillon, Subhi is a 12-year-old Rohingya refugee boy, born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled the violence of her distant homeland. Life behind the fences is all he has ever known, but as he grows, his imagination grows too, until it is bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history, but will Subhi and Jimmie both find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

Mary Roubos as Jimmie in The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Robert Day

“Subhi, the protagonist, lives in the world of his imagination and doesn’t realise what’s going on around him,” says Shakthi. “Instead, he’s lost in his own charming world, and it’s fascinating that he can have such an enchanting world in such a brutal situation.”

By now, Shakthi had been joined on the Zoom screen by his own young son, awoken from his sleep – it was 8.45pm in Sydney – by the sound of voices.

“So often we are beaten down by the world,” says Shakthi. “We reshape ourselves to fit into it. Subhi’s story is different. In The Bone Sparrow this imaginative young boy discovers within himself a strength that will change the world around him.

“It’s a classic coming-of-age story and yet so much more. The Bone Sparrow is by turns a wondrous tale of epic, mythical adventure; a realistic appraisal of what it means to grow up without freedom; and a vision of renewed solidarity across our supposed divisions.”

Jimmie’s story is as significant to Shakthi as Subhi’s tale. “Immigration, asylum and race is such an important issue in Australia, where it has swung elections for 20 years now and changed government policy,” he says.

“What the children’s relationship does is bring out a common humanity within people, unlike so much of the dialogue, both by those who are well meaning and those with no compassion. Subhi and Jimmie’s friendship obliterates all that: they are two kids who develop a love for each other and have a lot of fun together as well.”

Shakthi continues: “It’s a political play but it’s not a didactic one. I love works that present the complexity of humanity, so the central relationship is so important here.

“What wasn’t in the book so much is that it’s a Rohingya Muslim family. In Zana’s story it’s portrayed with a lighter touch, but I’ve been very keen to have the Rohingya community involved in the project.”

Mackenzie Scott, as Beaver, left, and  Elmi Rashid Elmi,  as Eli, in the detention centre in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

To that end, Esther has liaised with the British Rohingya community, based in Bradford and especially with Sirazul Islam, who began the project as a consultant and is now the assistant director. Like Subhi, Sirazul was born into a refugee camp, and he speaks in public about his experiences of being Rohingya.

In addition, the production team has spoken to other Rohingya people and young sanctuary-seekers, who have been consulted on the script. “The play has a stronger sense of that culture now,” says Shakthi.

Reflecting on his own childhood, he says: “I was born in Sri Lanka in 1982; when the riots happened in 1983, it deepened into civil war, and that’s when my family moved to Chandhai in India, hoping to come back to Sri Lanka.

“That’s the thing about war; it can take a while before anyone calls it a war. We moved first to India, then Singapore, then Australia by the time I was three. We never did go back to Sri Lanka. I’m an Australian, with a lot of family in England as the Tamil diaspora spread everywhere.”

Fraillon’s story of Subhi has many resonances for Shakthi. “I understand what it means not to be in your homeland because of your race, and I understand what it means for a relatively small country to descend into violence,” he says.

“Subhi’s tale is one of growing up distanced from his culture, but he reaches a crisis point in his young life where he finds strength in that culture.

“In my case, my parents pushed me into assimilation in Australia, and so I didn’t really connect with my [Tamil] culture until my late-20s.”

Assimilating meant doing things like supporting Steve Waugh’s Australian cricket team, recalls Shakthi. “I would follow what my white Australian mates were doing, whether it was music or sport,” he says.

The Pilot Theatre company on stage at York Theatre Royal in The Bone Sparrow. Picture: Robert Day

“But then you find your own culture is far more sophisticated than you realised, and through all that pain of leaving your own country, now I really appreciate both my Sri Lankan culture and my Australian culture, so that’s a bonus that other people don’t have: being able to look at the world in different ways. That stops you from being pompous.”

Addressing the thorny subject of immigration, detention centres and sanctuary seekers, Shakthi says: “You can talk about this stuff endlessly politically, but the thing I always come back to is thinking: ‘is it fair to make one group a scapegoat for everyone else?’.

“The Australian government thinks that putting one group of people in detention will be a deterrent to others, but what does it say about that one group? We have to find other ways.

“It’s very easy to make people have knee-jerk reactions on this issue – all that talk of ‘taking our jobs and protecting our borders’ – but the success of the UK, USA, Canada and Australia is co-dependent on welcoming people. You can’t have one without the other. Generally, when people come, they work their butts off, doing jobs others aren’t willing to do.

“That’s why Jimmie’s relationship with Subhi is so vital in the story. She doesn’t apply labels to him. She just sees him as a boy and a friend.”

Living in suburban western Sydney, Shakthi is in a community where many migrants have settled. “In its time, it’s had the most diverse population in the world,” he says. “Going for a cup of coffee in the morning, you pass every culture.”

Plenty of cups of coffee later, The Bone Sparrow is up and running at York Theatre Royal. “I’ve had a great deal of fun collaborating with Pilot to develop a grand theatricality for this work and deepen its relationship with the Rohingya community,” says Shakthi. “I hope audiences are as delighted and moved by this story as we were in the process of adapting it.”

Pilot Theatre’s premiere of The Bone Sparrow runs at York Theatre Royal until Saturday, then on tour from March 8 to April 2. York box office: 01904 623568 or at

S. Shakthidharan: Writer, storyteller, composer, director and producer for stage and screen

S. Shakthidharan in profile:

Shakthi is a western Australian writer, producer, composer and director for screen and stage of Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry. His 2019 debut play, the three-hour epic Counting And Cracking, had a profound effect on the Sri Lankan community in Sydney.

He has a new commission in development with Sydney Festival; a number of plays with Belvoir; a feature film with Felix Media and two new television projects.

He is the artistic director of Kurinji and lead artistic consultant at Co-Curious, a sister company to CuriousWorks, where he was the founder and artistic director from 2003 to 2018.

Seeing asylum through a child’s eyes in Pilot Theatre’s The Bone Sparrow premiere

Yaamin Chowdhury in rehearsal for his role as refugee Subhi in Pilot Theatre’s world premiere of The Bone Sparrow

AFTER racism in Noughts & Crosses and gang culture in Crongton Knights, York company Pilot Theatre now address immigration and asylum seekers in The Bone Sparrow.

The world premiere opens tomorrow (25/2/2022) at York Theatre Royal, Pilot’s partners in the third in a series of co-productions with Derby Theatre, Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, and Mercury Theatre, Coventry.

Pilot artistic director Esther Richardson directs Australian playwright S. Shakthidharan’s adaptation of children’s author Zana Fraillon’s story of a Rohingya refugee boy who has spent his entire life living in a detention centre in Australia.

Directing a cast of eight, who have been rehearsing in a bubble in the De Grey Rooms and taking lateral flow tests every second day, Esther says: “It’s the biggest project we’ve done since the start of the pandemic, with a team of 12 on the road – the cast and four stage managers – for the tour.

“This show was already on the slate to do in 2022, and we just thought ‘let’s do it’ as we really believe in the importance of the project because how we treat migrants is so topical.

“Immigration and racism are very important subjects, as we ask searching questions about who we are as a country if we’re not going to support those who are fleeing their homes to seek a better life – whereas before Brexit we were seen as a nation that did accept asylum seekers.”

In The Bone Sparrow, refugee Subhi is born in an Australian permanent detention centre after his mother fled her violent homeland. Behind the fences, his imagination grows as he grows, until bursting at the limits of his world. 

One night, Jimmie, a scruffy, impatient girl, appears from the other side of the wires, bringing with her a notebook written by the mother she lost. Unable to read it, she relies on Subhi to unravel her own family’s mysterious and moving history. Will Subhi and Jimmie find a way to freedom as their tales unfold?

“The play is set in Australia, where the system for asylum seekers is horrendous, and it’s the one that [Home Secretary] Priti Patel is talking of implementing here,” says Esther.

“The play seeks to raise awareness about detention centres and how people are treated, but it’s also a story of the power of imagination for a boy who is born in a detention centre but has this relentlessly optimistic way of seeing the world through that imagination.

Pilot Theatre artistic director Esther Richardson

“That’s an important metaphor for everyone, but especially young people, as we come out of the pandemic and those lockdowns.”

The role of Subhi will be played by Yaamin Chowdhury, who says: “I always used to say that kids ‘play pretend’, but I didn’t ‘play pretend’; I ‘play believe’. That’s how Subhi resonates with me.

“Then, doing plays that are political, especially this boy, carrying the story, being the hero of the story, I feel like I’m the custodian of people who are disenfranchised, which is important, no matter what geographical world a story is set in.”

Subhi is 12, Yaamin, 23. “Tapping into my inner child, and a child’s curiosity, is the best way to play this character, and I have to be true to every moment, every stimuli, I can be.

“That can be hard sometimes, when remembering that I can look at the world differently, whereas Subhi can only do so by looking at the outside world through the fence’s diamond shapes.

“A lot of people are hermetically sealed from Subhi’s world, and it’s the harsh reality that seeing is believing only when confronted by his story, but that’s the journey we have to take educate people about the sensitive issues of what’s going on in these detention centres for anyone seeking asylum.”

Esther rejoins: “Subhi has never been able to see the sea, for example, so he has to imagine what the sea looks like as he only has people’s stories to draw on. He’s driving his older sister mad by always asking her what she remembers of living in Burma.”

Just as Subhi uses his imagination, so must the audience. “Theatre is about us doing that,” says Esther. “It’s the human act of profound connection with a story that enables us to empathise or project on to a character to understand someone in a way that only theatre can do.”

Yaamin picks up that point. “Experiencing a play, someone’s story, can change someone, and it’s good to have that feeling that if we have changed someone, we’ve done something right,” he says.

From tomorrow, let the power of theatre meet the power of the imagination at York Theatre Royal.

Pilot Theatre presents The Bone Sparrow at York Theatre Royal, tomorrow (25/2/2022) until March 5, then on tour until April 2. Box office: 01904 623568 or at

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