Browse reviews

Brighton Fringe 2017

Undercover Refugee

Karen Houge

Genre: Spoken Word, Theatre

Venue: The Warren: Studio 3 St Peter's Church North BN1 4GU


Low Down

After Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece ‘Scoop’, probably the truest account of war reporting is Edward Behr’s 1978 book – ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’

Whether they work for newspapers or TV, war correspondents have to tell a story that grips their audience – and what brings home the brutality of war more strongly than defenceless women being raped? But the readers and viewers at home want detail, preferably graphic and personal, and that can’t have as much impact when told second-hand through an interpreter. Hence the reporter’s habitual question – and the book’s title.


The Syrian conflict has displaced millions, from every level of that society. The refugees include simple workers as well as highly educated professional people: lawyers, teachers and scientists – people forced to flee for their lives by a brutal civil war. They’ve survived a hazardous sea crossing in overcrowded open boats. They endure hardship in makeshift camps in Greece.  Then they fall into the hands of the Mafia people-smugglers, who get them across borders – waiting for days for a train to arrive to take them onward into Croatia, Hungary and further west.           To wind up as an Uber taxi-driver in Frankfurt …

Or Oslo.  Karen Houge is Norwegian, and she wanted to be a witness to this great human tragedy, travelling with the refugees, engaging with the issues and telling it like it is – like her heroine the TV reporter Asne Seierstad (she shows us her picture -imagine a Norwegian Kate Adie).  Karen didn’t have any broadcasting experience, though, and no press card, so she decided to travel to Lesbos on her own, and film a documentary. I was expecting ‘Undercover Refugee’ to be a worthy piece, and probably tear-inducing too.

What we got was irony. Karen and her partner David Tann, both dressed in black, surrounded by white gauze curtains on the compact stage at The Warren’s Studio 3. Karen quickly donned a flak-jacket and helmet – you have to look the part to tell the story graphically – while David stood to one side doing all the other roles.  They told us they really wanted to engage with their audience, so Karen handed one of us a small flag – “Wave this if you think we’re getting too pretentious”. My friend Rowena was given a microphone and some sheets of script, and she was sat in the front row, where she was to be Karen’s occasional ‘inner voice’ – her conscience – telling her what she should be doing; making her documentary instead of flirting with aid workers or refugees.

Because this show is really all about sex. It’s a sexy scenario – young, fit, idealistic westerners spending their days pulling desperate people from the surf, then getting off with each other later in the Lesbos bars.   Like ‘Baywatch’ – but with a lot more ouzo.
David pulled off his jacket and shirt and flexed his muscles for us as he became one of ‘Team Humanity’ on the beach. Karen clung on to a small piece of white driftwood, briefly becoming a refugee mother with a baby, and David snatched the wood from her arms, holding it triumphantly wrapped in a ‘Team Humanity’ jacket and an EU flag, while Karen then videoed the scene. Humanitarian aid as a gap-year activity …

It’s a social media orgy. “How do you survive on Lesbos?” – “Facebook”. Videos, selfies – everything goes straight onto Facebook and YouTube. How many people did we help?, and how many ‘likes’ did we get?   And the reporting has to be simple, obvious, conforming to our stereotypes.  “Have you been oppressed by men? Have you been raped? No? Maybe she’s a terrorist. Are you a terrorist?”  David whipped up an audience frenzy in support of Team Humanity – “When I say ‘Refu’, you all shout ‘Gee’, OK?”

And of course we all did. “Refu”-“GEE!” “Refu”-“GEE!” Wow!

Stalin once said – “The death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million persons is a statistic” When Karen joins a small group of Syrians, to travel west with them, the fleeing masses suddenly become very human.  She told us of Habyama, Haman and Mustashan. Habyama, 28 and very pregnant, had been a history professor at the University of Damascus.  Haman was older, a painter who’d spent time in prison for his political beliefs.  Mustashan at 23 was the joker of the three, always fretting about his appearance; his essential possession seemed to be a can of hair spray – funny how everyone has a different set of priorities. We were reminded that these are real people, with real lives, not just an anonymous crowd spilling out of an overloaded boat onto the front pages of our newspapers.

But the show’s really about sex and social media, remember. They’ve come through Macedonia and they’re on a Mafia train in Hungary – an illegal transit organised by people-smugglers. Karen’s with them, and her inner voice (Well done, Rowena …) urges her to post some selfies online – “Show people where you are. None of your friends have been on a Mafia train. Think about all the ‘Likes'” Within seconds she gets a response – “U R so brave !!!”  Earlier in the trip when Habyama had given birth, Karen received update texts from Haman every few minutes on her iPhone.

Karen takes a definite shine to Mustashan – “He has beautiful eyes” – and we sense David’s jealousy as he crashes around noisily on the side of the stage. Then we’re back in the present as she reassures him – “But that was before you and I even met! – and anyway I like masculine men” As you’ve probably realised by now – this was a deeply ironic take on the refugee crisis, and very post-modern – there’s no ‘fourth wall’ in this production. Karen and David bicker (like all couples) and they’re constantly reworking their lines to achieve the effect that Karen wants in the show.

There’s physical theatre, too, and some very inventive shadow-play, but you’ll have to see the show for yourselves to experience that. It’s also very, very funny. There had been gales of laughter throughout, but at the end they stuck up large photographs of the refugees during their trip – clinging together fearfully in the boats, then cold and crowded in the transit camps.

Real people, with real lives.   The memory of them stayed with me as we stepped out of Studio 3 to get a drink and sit in the Brighton sunshine – warm and safe.