It should be obvious by now.
Making it more likely that migrants will drown trying to cross into Europe won’t stop migrants from trying to escape where they come from – so what are we going to do about it?
That’s what Anders Lustgarten asks his audience in Lampedusa, his latest play at Soho Theatre, where global crises are intrinsic with our domestic politics – and it could hardly be more urgent a question. Last week saw the death of over 400 migrants when a boat capsized off the coast of Libya. Just days later, over 700 people were drowned trying to reach Lampedusa this Sunday.
“There’s a bearing witness in Lampedusa to all the people that have drowned,” he tells me. At least 4,000 in 2014, to be exact – and that was before Mare Nostrum, the EU’s rescue operation in the Mediterranean, was cut, a decision that we are now starting to see the full consequences of.
Lustgarten’s play tells the parallel stories of Stefano, whose job is to retrieve the bodies of migrants from the Med, and Denise, who funds her university degree with a job she loathes as a pay day loan collector. It examines the extent to which people are forced by systems to become complicit in institutional cruelty in order to make their living, and but it also carries an uncompromisingly hopeful message of the redemptive power of ordinary human kindness.
Some critics have suggested the play needs a right-wing voice in order to be sufficiently balanced, but Lustgarten challenges this. “If you’re a member of the right, you have a safe space pretty much everywhere you go,” he says.
“Pretty much everywhere you can express your belief that markets work and that we are gonna make the world a better place and it’s okay to make a lot of fucking money in the process. And the left has no space for that; all it does is fundamentally cut itself into ribbons.”
Whilst he accuses media juggernauts such as Nigel Farage and Katie Hopkins of “deliberately poisoning our collective air,” he says the problem with the left is that “it’s run by pussies, who have no balls to fight back where it really counts.” What he wants to do with Lampedusa is demonstrate “what you’re missing as a human, if you cut yourself off from other humans.”
Born to American immigrant parents with Hungarian Jew ancestry, Lustgarten, whose political activism has seen him arrested in four different continents, was a professional athlete before he went to America to do a PhD in Chinese politics – “on the cultural ramifications of going from communism to capitalism”.
It was there that he started teaching in prison – and it was by taking what he was learning and making it accessible to his students that he was compelled to start writing plays.
“I just think that real, normal people have so much more life and vitality and worth and insight and knowledge, I’d rather talk to them. That’s what my plays and my political activism are trying to do: communicate with the people who give you hope.”
One of the biggest problems right now, Lustgarten says, is that we feel paralysed by a lack of a sense of agency. “We’re at a very unique time,” he says. “I can’t think of really any time since the Industrial Revolution where there hasn’t been a viable political alternative to an existing system.”
As an activist, Lustgarten spent a lot of time at the Occupy movement, “and initially I found it brilliant,” he says. They didn’t have demands and were overtly resistant to power – “but then after a while you go, ‘what the fuck are we gona do, just sit there and talk process the whole time?’ So I’m ambivalent about what an alternative ideology would look like. In lieu of that, what we really need is a human connection.”
He marvels at “the fear in this society right now – it’s quite extraordinary. The fear of others and the fear of believing in anything.”
But again, it comes down to the lack of political alternative; our politicians know there’s no around to hold them to account, Lustgarten suggests – “they know no one’s really going to riot, no one’s going to organise around something, no one’s going to set stuff on fire. That’s what stops people feeling like they are entitled to more, that ‘what the fuck can we do?’”
Austerity, he says, “has been one of the more successful capitalist cons of recent years, because they’ve managed to take something that is almost entirely down to the speculations and extractions of the 1%, and turn it into something where it’s like, ‘Mrs Whatever-down-the-road is taking forty quid off the state that she’s not entitled to, she’s fucking you over, get rid of her.”
The upshot of deprivation to public services is that it impacts upon our interactions with one another, Lustgarten continues. “You go to an A & E department and there’s shitloads of people there and you go, ‘who the fuck are these people?’ You get on the tube and you go, ‘why are all these people on the tube?’ You only interact with people in competitive settings, whether it’s applying for a job or trying to get on the same train back home – you very rarely interact with people in shared and collective settings.”
The only time in recent years that this has been different, he says, was the Olympics – “people felt part of some shared experience.”
It was last week that the Conservatives announced that their flagship policy for the General Election would be to re-visit Margaret Thatcher’s infamous right to buy scheme – but Lustgarten suggests that inflating a massive house price bubble is the Tories’ “economic weapon”.
When money is endlessly pumped into the real estate market “with the deliberate attempt of keeping this thing inflated,” your house becomes your prime asset. This contributes to turning every social interaction into what he calls “the financialisation of human behaviour.”
“Your house becomes your prime asset, and therefore your neighbours become a potential diminishment of that asset, if they don’t keep the lawns clean, or they make too much noise.”
Although he suggests that “80% of theatre is bourgeois wank about whether two North London people are gonna have a child or not,” Lustgarten believes that it is built on a principle that is not only crucial and fundamental, but absent from our present society – collectivity. “That’s how a good society should work,” he says.
“I think that might be one of the real root causes of people’s rage: you’re told to think you’re an individual and that you matter and you’re important and individualism is the only thing. But power and money are almost entirely concentrated somewhere else, and the only way you’re gonna get those back is by forms of collective action.”
Although he has a clear belief in theatre’s ability to bring people together, encourage human connections, and enable the bearing of witness, he is concerned about what he sees as a profoundly unhealthy acceptance of German theatre in British theatre.
“I’ve got a lot of time for Germans. But they will not apologise for what they are doing to Greece right now. And they are ruining Greece – putting old ladies out on the street to die. They’ll apologise for the Second World War, which they didn’t do, but if you go to Berlin there is nothing about what Germany is doing.” And their theatre reflects this – it’s “very arch, with an arctic chilly distance to it. And that’s exactly the product of what happens when you are destroying people not very far away and you don’t wanna think about it."
“For us to take on that spectacle and obsession with distance and archness is an abdication of moral responsibility. It’s an act of cowardice – there’s something really wrong with the cowardice in British theatre right now.”
Lustgarten is quick to stress that he’s not “some sort of mad hero” – in fact, he doesn’t even believe he’s that radical.
“It’s just what most writers did for most generations before this one – which is to tell the story of poor people and real people with heart and integrity. That’s what Alan Bleasdale did, that’s what Arthur Miller did, countless people did – so I don’t think I’m so revolutionary. It’s that everyone else pussied out.”
But what he continually returns to is the idea that a sense of optimism and a striving for emotional connection can bring about real change. There’s a sense of pessimism in society right now, he suggests – “’Everything’s shit, nothing fucking matters’ – that’s a protective thing isn’t it?”
But the general mood of the British public, he believes “is highly critical and highly search of something more meaningful”.
“People are trying to protect themselves and they’re afraid of being hurt; they’re afraid of showing what they’re all about and they’re afraid of being disappointed.”
“I guess we just have to try and encourage people to be brave.”
Lampedusa is at Soho Theatre until 26 April