Collapsing drama to grapple with difficult realities: Vidya Rajan’s Crocodiles

I saw a reading of Vidya Rajan’s Crocodiles in 2022 and was struck by how surprising the script was: from how the title connects to the themes of the work (which is about aged care in Australia and immigrant labour who staff the sector), to the captivating dialogue, to the form of the piece. I was excited to see the full production recently, produced by Naarm independent theatre company Elbow Room as part of the Darebin Arts Speakeasy program.

Rajan is a prolific writer and creator, working across theatre, comedy, poetry, live performance and the digital realm. Her work always grapples with the difficult and always uses form in intriguing ways to do so. In Crocodiles, she puts aged care under her creative and aesthetic microscope to make a play that elides dramatic convention.

This is not a review of the production so I will not attend to all aspects of that in full. Suffice to say that—like much independent theatre made on the smell of an oily rag—Crocodiles was driven by a powerhouse ensemble cast, sparse and effective design, and direction that allowed the strangeness and the poignancy of the play to shine.

The troubles with Australia’s aged care sector have been urgent for a long time and were highlighted in the findings of the Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety (2021). One of the key issues highlighted in the report was staffing, and how this has been addressed in part by employing care workers from overseas—including moves to provide fast-tracking to permanent residency applications for overseas workers.

This and other issues gripping the sector are integral to the script—which Rajan began writing in 2018along with associated themes of family dynamics around aging and dying, the realities faced by precarious workers and immigrant persons of colour in Australia, and questions of power and privilege in the health sector.

To set the stage, then, the play opens on an elderly woman in care, lying in bed, and her adult son and his wife, David and Sue—caring but distracted and slightly condescending—by her side. The mother, Helen, whom the cast list characterises as ‘coded white but preferably played as an accented first-generation Eastern/Southern European woman’, is chattering away, slipping in and out of lucidity, but still overall sharp and present. She talks about a television show she saw where someone was taken by a crocodile—or was it Mary, one of the other residents? no it was a woman on the TV. ‘They found her bones a week later and no one had noticed,’ she comments. These slips are awkwardly laughed off or steered away from by the high-pitched David and Sue. After some time, care worker Sandhya enters, suffers the casual racism of the family and with professional politeness proceeds to bathe Helen.

What one might expect after this opening scene is for a narrative to unfold about the family coming to terms with their mother’s decline, or perhaps a narrative centred around Sandhya. What Rajan gives us slides somewhere between these expectations—and this is where her risks with form take flight. Rather than building a standard dramatic narrative where characters leech conflict out of each other around a central incident until some kind of resolution is achieved, Rajan offers something more fragmented, episodic, and ‘minor’. I use the term in the sense proposed by Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘minor literature’—which is majorly political and, among its many attributes, is constituted by people living as minorities constructing language within a major culture.

There are multiple ways Rajan suggests and achieves this construction within Crocodiles. One is the modulation of language: Hinglish with frequents slips into Hindi for Sandhya and Neela (another care worker), delivered with great skills by actors Rachel Kamath and Shamita Siva; the blunt, sometimes racist vernacular of Helen, a first-generation European immigrant. The language of the white working-class characters in the play is unself-conscious and direct, and creates a further contrast with the anxious style of the lower-middle class family members of Helen, and the fluid, erudite, self-aware language of the two most culturally powerful characters in the play—Priya (Australian with South-Asian heritage, chief doctor at the aged care facility) and her partner in life and business, white, middle-upper class James. There is a great deal of linguistic sophistication at play as Rajan lets each of these characters loose with their way of seeing, making sense of, and ‘uttering’ their circumstances. She creates a cacophony that evokes the multiple stories, languages, and forces at work.

The other major formal invention in the play relates to its structure. There is a significant event that occurs at the facility, one that warrants an investigation. But rather than follow this through via the familiar dramatic cause-and-effect structure, Rajan chooses to unfold the story via a small number of discrete interactions that could almost be described as ‘behind the scenes’. The two Punjabi workers, Sandhya and Neela, interact via phone and screen, revealing a taut, at times tender, and mostly fractured relationship that slips between and around the subjects of social life, work permits, and financial pressures; we meet the couple running the facility in just one scene, at home in their room with a spectacular view—here, Rajan interrogates class, race and privilege with great nuance. A strained scene in the foyer of a tribunal hearing follows. Finally, we encounter a scene that—to use another Deleuzian reference—is a surreal, sad, funny and poignant ‘line of flight’ taking the characters and the audience elsewhere. This further unsettles any sense of resolution or belonging for the restless and (mostly) powerless figures in this (non-)drama, and raises hugely profound questions about whose bodies, lives and deaths matter.

It is vital that writers like Rajan be supported to explore performance writing and explode dramatic forms. We are gradually seeing greater representation of non-white writing on our main stages, with recent examples including Rajan’s adaptation of Looking for Alibrandi (Malthouse 2022) and Arrernte writer Declan Furber-Gillick’s Jacky (Melbourne Theatre Company 2023) —though there is less scope for formal invention in these contexts. Other companies such as Western Edge are fostering a new generation of performers, theatre makers and writers from varied, often non-white, working-class backgrounds to make utterly original work.

However, to make this kind of work in the independent sector with little or no financial support and no company infrastructure takes enormous courage and energy. To write between the monolithic columns of ‘well-made theatre’ and put lives and stories on stage that show minority experiences in a multitude of ‘minor’ ways is difficult. Add the racism and other structural barriers that some practitioners face, and the task becomes Herculean.

Rajan has the fortitude and skill to face the task, and a company like Elbow Room the deep commitment to nurturing new writing to put works like this on. It is essential for other writers, makers, and performers who don’t stem from the culturally dominant white, middle-class world that produces most ‘Australian culture’ to see and feel and experience these works, these different ways of making and ‘languaging’, so they may be emboldened to do the same. And, importantly, so that the ways in which we see and understand ourselves continues to be ever more nuanced, sophisticated and evolved.


Emilie Collyer

Emilie Collyer lives on unceded Wurundjeri Country where she writes poetry, plays and prose. Her poetry book Do you have anything less domestic? (Vagabond Press 2022) won the Five Islands Press Prize. She is currently under commission with Red Stitch Theatre and is the 2023 Melbourne Athenaeum Library writer-in-residence.

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