Colin Serjent describes the ways theatre in the UK has portrayed asylum seekers, refugees and migrants.
Photograph: The Bogus Woman
Amidst the most tragic humanitarian crisis since World War 2, millions of people are fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea, Congo, Sudan, and countless other countries to seek safe haven in Europe and the UK.
The accounts of their experiences are often appalling, with the mainstream media, notably television, seldom bringing their plight to the attention of the public.
But a number of theatre company projects and initiatives are giving a voice to these often desperate and isolated people.
These include those that have been staged in Liverpool and in other parts of the UK. The Unity Theatre, which was formed as the Merseyside Left Theatre in the 1930 and a proponent of radical theatre, has been at the forefront in giving their views a platform.
In 2016 they presented ‘Rights of Passage’, written by Clare Summerskill, and performed by herself with Artemis Theatre Company. It starkly depicted the hardships of lesbians and gays who have fled to the UK. The play questioned what happened when they got to the country they hoped would offer refuge to them: who is welcome, who is locked up, and who is deported?
As Lisa Buckby, Communications Officer at the Unity, commented about the play, “Artemis allowed the audience a glimpse into the private, undocumented and often unreported lives of those that have come to the UK to seek asylum purely on account of their sexual orientation.”
Summerskill had interviewed LGBT asylum seekers as a major source of research in creating her play.
“It is the most accurate portrayal of LGBT asylum seekers we have ever watched,” remarked a spokesperson from UK Lesbian and Gay Immigration Group.
In 2015 the Unity had staged ‘The Bogus Woman’, presented by Curtis Productions and Theatre By The Lake. The production was regarded as an impressive monologue inquiring into a particular woman’s bid for asylum and acceptance.
This ran as a companion piece to ‘Lampedusa’ by Anders Lustgarten, which spotlighted the tragic drowning of over 4000 people in 2014, in trying to cross the Mediterranean. Since then thousands more have perished at sea in pursuit of a new place to live.
Lustgarten said, in no uncertain terms, “In the midst of all this toxic crap about immigrants and spongers, this play gives a human voice to the victims of demonisation.”
At the end of 2015, instead of the usual Christmas fare theatre companies put on, the Unity presented ‘The Prince and the Pea’.
Previewing the play Buckby commented that “in adapting this traditional fairy tale we want to tell an important story and in doing so, connect audiences with something meaningful. In respect of this the production relates to the global refugee crisis.”
Further afield, at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, a festival was held during November 2016, titled ‘London Stories: Made By Migrants.’ It was a promenade piece that connected audiences with real migrants and their true stories. The focus was specifically on migrant narratives.
It comprised 29 storytellers, who have all come to London from various countries. The performers were not trained actors. Some read from notes while others did not need to do so. For instance, tales were told of cross-cultural adoption and people fleeing war zones. Posters were put up on walls to remind people the way newspaper headlines have been used to incite fear and panic about migrants with terms like ‘Invasion’ and ‘Flood’.
As one critic suggested, “This was not theatre at all and yet in some ways it is theatre at its purest, an opened hand, an invitation to listen.”
Perhaps the most intriguing of the recent stage productions illustrating the struggles faced by asylum seekers, refugees and migrants was the recent staging of a new version by David Greig of ‘The Suppliant Women’ by Aeschylus, the second oldest play ever written, in 463 BC. In it the word democracy was used for the first time. 2,500 years have elapsed since it was written but it is still very contemporary, in that it recounts the story of fifty women boarding a boat in North Africa to flee across the Mediterranean, seeking asylum in Greece. It posed similar questions to those which are asked now. Who are we, where do we belong and if all goes wrong who will take us in?
Closer to home (almost literally), In January this year, the HOME Arts Centre in Manchester presented ‘The Island, The Sea, The Volunteer and The Refugee’, directed by Susan Roberts. In essence, the show was about the time performer (and writer and co-producer) Louise Wallwein spent working at a refugee centre on the Greek island of Kos. Her testimony and poetic reflections were intercut with a selection of verbatim interviews adroitly delivered by Sushil Chudasama.
Most recently, Night Light, presented by Mandala Theatre, was staged at the Capstone Theatre in Liverpool. It was a striking portrayal of the dilemma of two young asylum seekers taking shelter in a disused warehouse in England, gravely concerned about being deported. It was a powerful, dark and provocative piece of theatre. Mandala Theatre aptly described it as ‘visceral theatre.’