The wizard of Oz

The story of two children who forge a friendship across cultural divides is being staged in York with help from 10,000 miles away. Andy Murray speaks to the Sydney-based writer of The Bone Sparrow

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First published in 2016, Zana Fraillon’s children’s novel The Bone Sparrow has fast become acknowledged as a modern classic. It’s about the remarkable friendship between young Australian girl Jimmie and Subhi, a Rohingya boy who’s spent his entire life in a refugee detention centre. Now the book is being brought to the stage at York Theatre Royal, as adapted by Sydney-based playwright S Shakthidharan, known as Shakthi.

When Shakthi, who has Sri Lankan heritage and Tamil ancestry, was first approached about the project, he was struck by the book’s power and potential. He says: “I’ve worked a lot as a community artist with asylum seekers and refugee communities, so I’ve gotten used to the kinds of stories that are told with them. I loved that The Bone Sparrow didn’t shy away from the more confronting parts of those issues. I was really attracted to the idea of helping create something that was almost fantasy-like and mythological, yet also gripping and political. That’s why I said yes.”

That’s not to say channelling the book into a stage show was without its challenges. Certain aspects of this process were, Shakthi says, “extremely difficult”.

“I was interested in building a story around a boy who shares with us, the audience, how he sees the world. That is beguiling and beautiful for us and yet we have to witness him learn that he can’t be like that anymore. He strikes up a friendship across borders that allows him to understand who he is. For me, that was really important – telling that story on the stage, keeping the essence of the book.”

Capturing that essence involved dramatising the book’s more fantastical aspects.

“We’ve worked really hard to open that up to its theatrical possibilities as much as possible and that’s meant things like puppetry and animation and masks. That’s been really fun. It’s something a book can’t do.”

Shakthi was particularly determined to honour the fictional Rohingya family at the heart of The Bone Sparrow. “We’ve worked really hard to have relationships with the Rohingya community in the UK. The assistant director on the show has a Rohingya background. Working with them, I’ve woven elements of Rohingya culture and storytelling into the script, making sure what’s important to them is in there.”

In practice, it’s an inescapable fact that north-eastern Australia is some considerable distance from York Theatre Royal, pandemic or no pandemic. In many ways, though, that participation is in the spirit of The Bone Sparrow itself.

“That’s it exactly,” Shakthi says from Sydney. “It’s turned out truly international. It’s amazing what you can do on Zoom! Yes, sometimes not being in the room together can be very frustrating. It means a letting-go on my part, but there’s no point trying to fight against things you can’t control. Also, it’s very easy to let go, because they’re a brilliant team [in York]. I trust them completely.”

Overall, Shakthi is satisfied that the end result will be worth the effort. “I think the work we’ve created is young people’s theatre at its best, in that it has two young people as the protagonists and it’s not at all condescending towards them. It’s a very moving story about the crossroads kids often reach at that point in their lives. I think families, or young people together, will have a lot to discuss afterwards.”

The Bone Sparrow is at York Theatre Royal 25 Feb-5 March (

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