Borderline: A Refugee Spectacle

Borderline: A Refugee Spectacle

There's spectacle in every modern crisis. Take refugees: we watch, engulfed in the torrent of media, agog; we see crisis news spread through our social networks, each share and emoticon like the impact wave of a fly caught in a web; we get to know how each of us is living this one through a like here, a share there.

The refugee crisis has been literally "spectacular" in this way. That's one of the reasons that Sophie Besse's new play, "Borderline", (3 Jan to 9 Jan 2017 at The Cockpit, London) is powerful and important: we sit and take in the spectacle of the refugee crisis as an audience, all together in the dark; we can see ourselves in its peripheral actors - volunteers, customs officials, dog-handlers, the man from the ministry - and it is uncomfortable. We see ourselves doing what most of us have done throughout the crisis: watch, feel appalled, but for us it's still just spectacle. And yet, in that theatre, in a special ways it's not just spectacle: first, Sophie has assembled a cast, some of them professionals, half of them refugees, whose story is the one being told. Second, we're all watching together: not at our private Facebook streams; we're watching this time in the full awareness that it's a spectacle and that as the audience, we're up to our necks in it.

Sophie Besse is a Frenchwoman in London who runs a theatre company, PSYCHEdelight. She has been a regular visitor to the Jungle where she has run theatre workshops (she has written regularly about her visits). Her previous play was very personal, a tragi-comedy about fertility and adoption. A bi-cultural couple is torn apart by biologically fated childlessness. But love through adoption - overcoming the unacceptable "given" order of things - turns the tragedy around into a story of hope and love. I can't help thinking that this is what Sophie is doing again: out of the trauma of the experiences of her actors, out of the unacceptability of the way we've treated them, she wants theatre to transform the story to one of love and hope.

Tragedy, love, hope ... but also laughs - there are moments of high comedy amidst the poignance. A well-meaning hipsterish woman (Lujza Richter) armed with her ukelele wonders around the camp pining for "a Syrian". No other identity will do: "They have suffered SO much ... What they've been through... I can feel... I can feel that they are the ones who need me the most" she whimpers, as she dismisses the wrong kind of needy: too black, not been bombed enough, etc. She eventually finds him,, and as she croons her solace with appalling musicianship, she notes, as an aside, "This is so Glastonbury!...". The bemused object of her attentions, a Syrian Jungle resident (Baraa Halabieh) points out: "Is that a camp?"

I ask the refugee-actors what the play means to them. It's hard to tell and it's hard to pry. I remember the few productions I have been involved in - the sense of purpose, camaraderie, achievement; the intimate sense of familiarity with a part or a playwright; the adrenalin of performance and its anticipation. And the bonds it forms between all those involved. Sophie tells me that she was shocked when Mohand told her that he misses Calais. No one to talk to in Bradford, where the Home Office have made accommodation available to him as his case is processed. Calais was hell but there was camaraderie. There were NGO helpers doing things. These refugees are in England now ... but they feel lost. In the camp, they had made something that was their own. Sophie is providing them with a glimpse that caring, connection camaraderie and self-creation are possible again here, even outside a self-made encampment.

This doesn't make the play something that is for them rather than for us. A lot of the work is improvised. I went to one of the rehearsals, where Remy was teaching the actors the principles of improvisation.

"Someone starts - anyone. With some theme in mind. Then you can do one of three things", he says. "1. either join them, do something that's broadly the same, add to their volume and their voice - that's unison; or, 2, you do something different - but just a bit different; something in harmony; or, 3, you give them something to push against, something different, but something that can be built on - that's counterpoint. Now," he continues, "you're going to show me - you're going to make a ... what do you call it ... that machine that makes electricity ... a generator".

Mohammad - a young Sudanese man - steps out from the assembled group and goes down on one knee; his arms turn rhythmically, like a piston. A few seconds later, Basel, tall, with beard, glasses and a square jaw, places himself as a mirror image of Mohammad; he makes the same movements. They remind me of the big flat twin engine I had on an old-fashioned BMW motorbike many years ago. Emily, straight out of a fashion magazine, tom-boy hair jet black with short points coming in front of her ears, comes forward to start making a rhythmic sputtering sound ... and so it goes, the engine gets more and more complicated, but each seems to be making a contribution to the operation of the whole thing. Remy watches and lets it run, mechanically, for 30 seconds.

"OK. Stop. There was one thing I didn't say. You can do those 3 things - the same, the different, and the counter - and you did that. Good. But also, you shouldn't let anyone stay alone. YY - he was making the noise of the exhaust ... but no one supported him. No one thought how they could do the same, or slightly different, or give him counterpoint. You left him alone. Now do it again. Let yourself be free in your heart; experiment; keep to the three rules; but if someone is left alone, do something for them ..."

Left alone ... do something for them ... Well, already this was getting poignant. Most of them have come quite recently from Calais's Jungle, and before that from the hell that their home has become. Acting alongside them are men and women from England, France, Wales and Chile. The three ways of joining represent a sort of humanistic ideal: work out how you can complement what each is freely doing; have an eye to what we're all jointly making; and look out to see if anyone needs support. The improvisation ensemble becomes the ideal for society as a whole, that elusive marriage of freedom, equality and collectivity. And by miming a machine, you're reminded that the cold and methodical mechanical contraption is itself a human artefact, made of human desires and brought together by much human coordination, by something shared rather than by a spooky invisible hand.

Like one of those wonderful mimed machines that Remy has them perform, the whole spectacle shows us our place in the overall spectacle of the refugee crisis and our role in the human construction that is this crisis.

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