Review: Boxman at the Blue Elephant Theatre

How can we, as individuals lucky enough to have been born into a country not torn apart by war, ever truly understand the refugee experience? The answer is that we can’t, of course – but plays like Daniel Keene’s Boxman take us one step closer, not only to understanding but to appreciating that for so many refugees, making it to the “safety” of the UK is far from the end of the story.

Such is the case for Ringo, the young man who shares his story in Flugelman Productions’ London premiere of Boxman. He’s made it out of Sierra Leone and all the way to Britain, but we learn little about his journey. Instead we find him living on the streets, in a home he’s built himself out of an old suitcase and some cardboard boxes. Now he passes each day with only a few assorted possessions and his memories to keep him company. “I’ve lived so many lives”, he tells us repeatedly, as he reminisces about life as a child soldier, or recalls the loss of his family to an uncertain fate.

But despite his obvious trauma, Ringo’s a survivor, with an extraordinary determination to make the best of a situation that would break most of his audience. (At one point he asks us all to think of the thing that hurts us the most, a powerful challenge that reminds us yet again how lucky we are.) Again and again we see him physically shake off the horror as he breaks into a broad grin and a cheerful laugh, both of which are so infectious we can’t help but join him even as our hearts are breaking for all he’s been through.

It’s clear from both the show itself and the short Q&A that followed on opening night that the team behind Boxman, and in particular director Edwina Strobl and actor Reice Weathers, take their responsibility to Ringo’s story very seriously. The show is produced in partnership with The Refugee Council, Refugee Action and Young Roots, and is informed by conversations with real refugees. So perhaps it’s not surprising that everything about Weathers’ performance rings completely true, whether he’s telling knock knock jokes to the front row or remembering the moment his father was torn from his arms by soldiers. Like Ringo, he has only his few meagre possessions on stage with him, but he brings Keene’s words to life so evocatively that we can clearly picture both his surroundings and the small figure who haunts the corners of the stage, occasionally drawing nearer to hear stories of their shared childhood.

Common sense tells us that the first step to empathising with displaced people who’ve been forced to flee their homes is to stop viewing them as headline statistics and start seeing their humanity. In Boxman, Daniel Keene gives us an insight into one man’s inner monologue, and a stark reminder of the ongoing trauma he and millions of others are still living through every day – even if they’ve “made it” to their destination. Beautifully performed by Reice Weathers, it’s essential viewing and a powerful counterpoint to the anti-refugee rhetoric to which we’re so frequently and depressingly exposed.

Review: The Sleeper at The Space

Over the last few years, images of refugees fleeing their homes in search of safety in Europe have become such a common sight in our newspapers and on our TV screens that they’ve begun to lose a little of the powerful impact they once had. The Sleeper – or What Happens When You Ask Them to Leave?, inspired by the personal experience of writer and director Henry C. Krempels, restores that immediacy by bringing the refugee crisis out of the papers (despite, ironically, having begun as a journalistic piece) and into the here and now – or more specifically, into British writer Karina’s bed on an overnight train through Europe.

Returning from the bathroom, she finds a young woman hiding in her bunk and unthinkingly goes in search of the train manager to complain. When the woman is revealed to be a Syrian refugee, Karina insists she wants to help; but despite returning to the beginning and replaying the situation in a variety of slightly different ways, there seems to be no obvious solution to the chain of events set in motion by her instinctive reaction.

It’s at this point that things get both interesting and a little uncomfortable, as Amena – who up to now has remained largely silent – steps up to have her say. Amused and bemused by the well-meaning but misguided notion that “a play can solve the refugee crisis”, she’s no longer content to sit by while the two white people try and solve her problem; nor does she need someone else to tell her story for her, however well researched and factually accurate that account might be. This is the play’s pivotal moment, and it jolts both actors and audience out of our complacency, dramatically altering our perception of Amena and our response to her situation.

The experimental piece is performed by a cast of three, with Sarah Agha’s Amena – perhaps not surprisingly – emerging as the strongest personality. Proud, independent and not afraid to stand up for herself, she doesn’t fit the mould of the timid, grateful refugee stereotype, and the play is all the richer for it. That said, the characters of Karina and train manager Georges – played by Michelle Fahrenheim and Joshua Jacob – are equally interesting; both are bound by their own sense of duty to an unwritten code, which means that despite the best intentions, their ability to help is limited to their own narrow frame of reference. It’s only when those restrictive codes are discarded, resulting in a lengthy sequence that builds little by little towards the play’s striking final image, that another possible way forward emerges.

At first glance, this conclusion seems to imply the play is doing exactly what it said it wouldn’t: trying to solve the refugee crisis. But on reflection, it’s not so much suggesting what we should do in this one incredibly specific situation as inviting us to take a step back to view the big picture in a different way, and challenging the sense of privilege that colours our assumptions every time those familiar images appear on our TV screens. And by addressing this lesson as much – perhaps even more – to its own cast as to the audience, the play successfully makes its point without feeling like it’s preaching. Unusual and thought-provoking, The Sleeper is an interesting hour of theatre that may not give us answers, but does leave us with plenty to think about.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Interview: Henry C Krempels, The Sleeper

“I think the crux of the immigration crisis can be reduced to a simple question. Do we claim what’s rightfully ours – that word throws up another entire question, I admit – or do we share it? When I had this experience, I was struck by two things: the first was that this crisis wasn’t happening elsewhere, it was here, right in front of me, and the second was how this whole thing boiled down to my reaction at the time. What was I going to do in the heat of the moment?”

Anima Theatre Company’s The Sleeper brings together true accounts from Syrian refugees and the very personal experience of artistic director Henry C Krempels, was longlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, and described in The Scotsman as “an exceptional piece of theatre-making”. The company are now preparing to bring the play to London, opening at The Space on 3rd April.

“The Sleeper is set on an overnight train somewhere through Europe,” explains Henry. “Karina, a British writer, naively reports a refugee hiding in her bunk. I think first and foremost, the play tells a story familiar to thousands of refugees over the past few years who have become stuck between leaving home and finding a new one.

“It’s all based on an experience I had on an overnight train from Milan to Paris. I came back to my cabin at about 2 in the morning and found a woman hiding in my bed. I then wrote this play, based entirely on that moment, and weaved together the real testimony of Syrian refugees, which I collected over a number of months, and my own personal experience which was commissioned by Vice Magazine at the height of the immigration crisis.”

Because the play began life as a piece of journalism, Henry had plenty of research to work from. “I had interviews and transcriptions, photographs, my own notes and conversations with people and charities including Refugee Action, who were based at Milan Central Station at the time – they were operating out of the mezzanine, which has now become a plush restaurant,” he recalls. “After collating all my research and getting a first draft we workshopped the central ideas, did a couple of scratch nights, then I went away and wrote something more complete.

“We have also done workshops as part of Arcola LAB, with refugees and migrants. We’ve allowed them to critique our play, insert their voices and opinions and talk, if they wanted, about their own experience of travelling through Europe. This was a particularly rewarding part of the process. These people are so much more than the traumas they’ve endured. ‘Inspiring’ doesn’t cover the half of it.”

Alongside the play, the company are producing a number of events. “Two main things: we are running workshops as part of the production, based around authenticity on stage. The central question is once a story is told, who does that story belong to and how can you get to the truth of a story? I guess, also, what even is truth on stage?

“We’ve also set up a ‘Refugee Fund’. The idea here is for theatre-goers and others to donate to the fund in order to help pay for the tickets, travel and workshop expenses of 100 refugees over the run. We all feel that this play is, in many ways, by, for and about refugees and asylum seekers and we have to do everything we can to make it as easy as possible for them to see it. Money is the major obstacle in this case.”

Anima’s primary goal is “to get new people, new audiences into theatre. Theatre has lost its place in society, I think. And that kind of collective experience should be integral. As integral as TV and Twitter. We want to make things that push it back into that direction. Inexpensive, entertaining, intellectually stimulating and, I guess, most of all, totally relevant.

“The company grew out of this idea of making theatre that was inclusive and collaborative. My background in journalism has influenced not only the way I write – research, research, research – but also the stories I want to tell. I am endlessly fascinated by the faltering line between fact and fiction, particularly in the context of theatre. The idea of showing something truthful extends beyond fact and fiction in theatre, even beyond the emotion of a scene. We’re always looking for truth and I want to push whatever that means as far as it can go.”

Interview: Roman Berry and Natali Servat, Little Did I Know

Written by Doc Andersen-Bloomfield, Little Did I Know is the story of a young girl, Aaneseh, who escapes from war-torn Syria by pretending to be a boy, and sets out for England. From Yarl’s Wood Detention and Removal Centre, she recounts her journey and the people she met along the way. The play, voted one of the top 3 in The Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award 2016/2017, opens this week and runs until Saturday.

Little did I Know is a beautifully written piece, full of compassion and humour,” says director Roman Berry. “The Syrian Civil War started eight years ago and it has created this ongoing humanitarian disaster and there doesn’t seem to be an end to it. I hope that by telling Aaneseh’s narrative, it sheds a light on the current issue of the refugee crisis. Little Did I Know‘s themes of innocence, identity, humanity and survival reflect the refugees’ plight, and it needs to be shared and talked about. Theatre, after all, acts as a cultural space where society examines itself in a mirror and all of us certainly need to reflect and further act on this humanitarian disaster.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

For Natali Servat, who plays Aaneseh in the one-woman show, her story also resonates on a personal level. “I am the child of refugees, so it’s a subject matter that has always affected me and meant a great deal to me,” she says. “It’s such an important story to tell for obvious reasons. People are dying every day as a result of a war that is incredibly hard to fully understand, and that has spiraled out of control. It’s important to remind people that Aaneseh’s story and the journey she is on is not by any means a rarity, it’s one which thousands of people go through each day, not only from Syria.

“I hope people will come out of Little Did I Know having a better understanding of the situation and recognising themselves in Aaneseh. It feels like such a stupid thing to say because it’s so obvious in a way, but these people are not any different to us and if we were faced with the same decisions to make, our choices wouldn’t be much different. We would all want to be met by support and love on the other side, especially after having lost everything and endured trauma that will follow you forever.”

The play charts Aanaseh’s journey as she sets out in search of safety, freedom and independence, growing along the way into a courageous young woman. “I love playing Aaneseh because she is such a complex and varied character to play,” says Natali. “We follow her during different stages of her early life, at first when she’s still a teenage girl living in Syria with a lot of her childlike innocence still intact. Later on, as she’s pretending to be a boy, something that she has to try and completely immerse herself into due to the fear of what might happen if the young men in the lorry she’s traveling in ever find out that she’s a girl. And ultimately, as the strong young woman she becomes, who has endured far more than she could have ever imagined. I love her strength, her determination, her ability to adapt, her generosity, and humanity. And the fact that she never gives up on her dreams. She fights till the very end and she never takes the easy way out, even though ‘easier’ paths present themselves during the journey. She is someone I would aspire to be.

“It’s a very interesting and emotionally complex journey to go on as an actor, not to mention physically as well. It’s also interesting to see the dichotomy between how she interacts with her family and later on in a collective of boys. It’s during this transition that she starts to understand that there are differences, some unfair ones, between boys and girls that she hadn’t fully realised before.”

Photo credit: Izzy Romilly

“I admire Aaneseh’s wit, defiance and survival instinct,” adds Roman. “Don’t mess with Aaneseh, I say.”

As difficult as the subject matter undoubtedly is, Roman has found working on the play a rewarding and eye-opening experience. “A lot of our primary research is in the writing itself,” he explains. “Doc Andersen-Bloomfield’s play has specified links to media footage and news articles, so it was a good place to start. Doc’s writing also allowed us to try out different forms. There are elements in the piece to try out music, movement and mix media to challenge our creative minds. Also collaborating with wonderful designers, like original music composed solely for Little Did I Know by Elliot Clay and other wonderful creatives. And with Natali’s ‘no fuss, focused, head down, let’s just do it’ approach to negotiating scenes, I definitely learnt a lot about the current refugee crisis and had so much fun throughout developing this challenging play on its feet.”

He’s honoured, too, to be directing one of the top 3 plays in last year’s Bread and Roses Theatre Playwriting Award: “The Award is such a great vehicle for any writers who wants to have their stories developed and shown as a professional production. Directing a piece from the Top 3 play has been a wonderful experience. Kudos to The Bread and Roses Theatre for this opportunity.”

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉

Review: The Claim at Shoreditch Town Hall

Based on two years’ first hand research into the refugee experience in the UK, Tim Cowbury’s The Claim takes a little while to get going – but when it does, it packs a massive punch. Intensely (and deliberately) frustrating, the play sets out to be provocative, and does so with such success I could actually feel my blood pressure rising in response.

Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

But let’s back up slightly. The Claim is the story of Serge, who fled to the UK from Uganda a year ago, to escape being sent back to his home nation, the Democratic Republic of Congo. Something bad happened there when he was ten; we know this because he tries repeatedly to explain it to the two officials he meets when he decides to apply for asylum in the UK. Unfortunately, Serge finds himself facing a distinct lack of understanding on either a linguistic or emotional level, with both members of staff too caught up in their own petty dramas to pay attention. The interview culminates in a farcical three-way interrogation, in which all Serge’s responses are wildly misinterpreted to paint a picture so far from reality all he – and we – can do is gape in appalled disbelief.

Mark Maughan’s production stages the interview more like a court appearance, with Serge forced to sit centre stage under the glare of harsh strip lighting, and at which the audience’s presence is not only acknowledged but welcomed. While the circumstances are exaggerated, however, the way in which Cowbury’s script manipulates Serge’s words feels all too plausible, with all three actors perfectly nailing the complex timing of the dramatic and fast-paced exchange. There’s also a clever play on language; though we hear everything in English, a large part of the conversation is in reality taking place in French – and while this is initially a source of comedy, it soon becomes a dangerous and insurmountable barrier.

What it all comes down to, ultimately, is that Serge – who has a job, a home and a life in the UK – doesn’t fit the one-dimensional image the two officials expect from a refugee. Played by Ncuti Gatwa, he’s charming, likeable and generally pretty relaxed, eventually cracking not out of desperation over his plight but out of simple fury at not being listened to. Consequently, Yusra Warsama’s cold, disinterested B assumes he must have something to hide, but ironically it’s Nick Blakeley’s A, who repeatedly insists he wants to help, that ends up doing the most damage.

Photo credit: Paul Samuel White

The Claim is not what I’d call an enjoyable play, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very good play, or that I didn’t respond quite powerfully to it. The inclusion of the audience in the story is no accident, and prevents us from smugly sitting back full of righteous anger at the two nameless officials. We’re complicit in this particular encounter, and it forces us to wonder how we ourselves might react in A and B’s shoes. There are no easy answers – but maybe simply listening is a good place to start.

Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉