In 2013, Australia’s image as a friendly regional power took a battering when it was revealed that ASIS officers had installed covert listening devices to tune into East Timorese government discussions regarding the Timor Gap oil fields, presumably to get the drop on then current negotiations over royalty payments – an estimated $40 billion.
The whistleblower, “Witness K”, told of the 2004 plot in which Australian operatives infiltrated East Timor under the guise of an aid program to install electronic bugs in the wall cavities of the government palace in Dili.
It was not a good look.
When the story broke, playwright Zoe Hogan had recently returned from Dili, after a year doing voluntary work with an NGO.
“I lived in Timor in 2011 and 2012 and I always wanted to write about some of the things I was involved in there,” she says. “I worked in development and when this story broke it gave me the bigger context for some of the personal dilemmas you face when you are an expat working in another country and you don’t know all the cultural nuances.”
All that, she says, found its way into her first full-length play, Greater Sunrise, which gets its premiere as the first in Belvoir’s 25A season in the Downstairs Theatre.
As the spying scandal unfolded in the media, Hogan threw herself into research.
“Once I started writing it I quickly got connected with a whole lot of people in Australia who are really passionate about the issue. I spoke to lawyers, government, activists and nuns and people who had been in Dili in 2004 and knew the extent of the bugging going on – everywhere.”
The resulting script, unsurprisingly perhaps, is a geopolitical thriller involving Joana, an aid worker, Meta, her East Timorese translator, and the oil executives and consultants who flocked to the emerging nation and its offshore oil resources.
“Joana is loosely based on a friend of mine who is of Chinese heritage but was born in Timor, grew up in Australia and went back to Timor as an engineer. She is someone no one can pigeonhole and who has very complex allegiances.”
The action, Hogan explains, shifts between Dili in 2004 and Canberra a decade later. “We cut between those two places because the fallout from that incident came so many years later,” she says.
The production is directed by Julia Patey and features actors Laurence Coy, Cassandra Sorrell, Alexander Stylianou and Timor-born Jose Da Costa, who plays Meta.
“I want the audience to feel something about injustice,” Da Costa says. “This is about a rich country trying to bully and rip-off a small, poor nation. It’s all about big money under the sea, which is hard for society to understand because these issues are very secret and nobody knows what is actually going on. This play really opens it up for the audience.”
Da Costa came to Australia in 1994 as a political asylum seeker, entering the country with a group sailing from Dili to Darwin.
“We were detained in a detention centre in WA for six or seven weeks, then we were released and I went to Melbourne,” Da Costa says. “When I arrived in Melbourne in 1995, I did a live theatre show on the Dili massacre and all the conflict and torture. It was not a happy story. I have done a lot of street theatre in Melbourne, for the independence campaign, trying to help people understand the struggle of East Timor.”
Later he says, he got into film, most notably in Robert Connolly’s drama Balibo. More recently, Da Costa co-founded and managed the Timorese film company Dili FilmWorks and produced a number of short films on life in the new nation of Timor Leste, as well as the country’s first feature film, A Guerra da Beatriz (Beatriz’s War).
Hogan approached him through friends and Facebook Messenger.
“I asked Zoe to send me the script and when I read it I thought it was a very good story to tell because most people don’t really know about the issue, only the activists who support East Timor,” Da Costa says. “I was passionate about it but then she told me we don’t have a budget! But I’m still happy to do it.”
Hogan says it’s not necessary for audiences to be fully across recent events in the Australia-East Timor relationship – events that are, as the play prepares to open, still in the headlines.
“I’m not a fan of theatre that gives you too much information to digest,” she says. “I don’t want it to be a lecture. That’s why I worked hard to create the personal story of Joanna so that you understand it through her eyes, when she is in her 20s and she’s naïve and she’s just arrived in Timor and making decisions on the fly, and then when she’s 10 years older and wiser in Canberra looking back at what happened.”
There is also a love story, Hogan says. “It’s not all spies and negotiations! The story has humour and personal moments, too.”