Nick Simpson-Deeks stars in Elegy.
Nick Simpson-Deeks stars in Elegy. Photo: Hayden Bevis

It can come as a surprise to learn that post-invasion Iraq is a much more dangerous place to be queer than it was before. "We tend to think in the languages of these countries being 'liberated' and 'freedom' being installed, but with the destabilisation came the rise of militias and things like ISIS," says director John Kachoyan. "You assume that the previous regime was always oppressive and always more rigorous. It's the same with the Taliban. You look at Afghanistan in the '70s and it was, relatively, an incredibly liberal place."

Kachoyan is directing the first Australian production of acclaimed UK play Elegy, a one-hander that taps into the real experiences of refugees persecuted for their sexuality. The typical image of an asylum seeker rarely gives rise to thoughts about sexual orientation, but Elegy was inspired by the work of photojournalist Bradley Secker, in particular a series of images named Iraq's Unwanted. From Turkey, where he is based, Secker says the series sought to convey "the reality of life in Iraq after the US-led invasion for minorities, and the fact that it clearly wasn't better than it was before for them. The images were trying to show their lives of hiding, their waiting, and total uncertainty of those that escaped the death squads."

UK writer and director Douglas Rintoul discovered the images and was stunned. "I was shocked that a country that we had 'liberated' showed more intolerance towards its minorities than it had under Saddam Hussein. This combined with a number of reports detailing the horrific injustice LGBTI asylum seekers were experiencing when they reached the UK compelled me to make Elegy."

John Kachoyan is directing the first Australian production of acclaimed UK play Elegy.
John Kachoyan is directing the first Australian production of acclaimed UK play Elegy. Photo: Eddie Jim

It's not illegal to be gay in Iraq, and before the war there was a healthy gay scene. "It was tolerated," says Rintoul. "But the conservative Islamic forces that won power were unwilling to tolerate Western values, and homosexuality became wrongly linked with that. LGBTI people became easy and popular targets. Many are kidnapped, tortured and killed.

"ISIS have been grabbing news headlines more recently, with their unbelievable brutality towards LGBTs and wider humanity," says Secker. "[But] many people seem to have forgotten that militias in Iraq slaughtered hundreds of men they perceived to be gay after the fall of Saddam." Secker shot Iraq's Unwanted in Syria in 2010 – many of the gay men he captured on film have since been displaced a second time.

Elegy deals with the unthinkable horrors queer asylum seekers are fleeing, but it is also a love story; the figure at its centre is defined by much more than his refugee status, and in fact doesn't define himself as one. Such complexities of identity are compounded by the fact that "there is no word for homosexual in the Arabic language and many men who have sex with men don't necessarily identify in the same way we do."

All of Elegy's makers seem wary of what Kachoyan calls "well-meaning white people's theatre." The work draws on actual interviews, giving it "a little bit more of a claim to authenticity," he says.

But Rintoul notes how important it is to speak about, rather than for, these real individuals.

In its early stages the monologue was written in the first person, which felt "uncomfortable and untruthful," says Rintoul. "I remember the moment when we put the text into the third person. 'He'. A great barrier was removed and the piece became a collective imagining, a piece of storytelling."

He's directed three productions of the piece, and in every case has to remind his actors to dial back the theatricality. "Actors are naturally pulled towards the emotion of a piece. This is their language. I would constantly pull them back, away from sitting in the emotional centre of the experiences. We would listen to recording of refugees talking about their experiences and, in the same way we ourselves talk about the distressing events of our own lives, they spoke very simply about their experiences."

Kachoyan has tried to retain that unadorned aesthetic. "We thought we might Australian-ise it, or make it a story that wasn't about lorries and border crossings in Europe but about boats and sinkings. But Nick Simpson-Deeks plays the man talking to us and he essentially just tells us a story, so for me the show became about the simplicity of that storytelling. He's not pretending to be Iraqi or putting on an accent or anything like that."

Elegy opens at Gasworks Arts Park on January 19; an exhibition of Douglas Secker's photography will accompany the production.