Brighton Fringe 2018
I wonder if the Bertreau sisters know the Cockney slang – ‘Skin and Blister’ ?
It rhymes with ‘sister’, of course, which is what Anne and Sophie are – and like most rhyming slang it’s used as a kind of code, a special language that ‘We’ understand but that ‘They’ don’t. Language that keeps us with our own identity, one that outsiders can’t penetrate easily.
Identity is so often based around language, but it’s based around culture too – and the colour of someone’s skin. Behind our skin we are all human beings, but at the surface level – of skin pigmentation or of the words that we use – we erect barriers that can be very hard to break through.
On their show’s flyer, Anne and Sophie Bertreau look almost identical. Like twins – hair cut the same, bright red lipstick and wearing very similar white lace dresses. Immaculate. So it was a surprise to see them on the small stage at Sweet Werks as two separate women, unrelated – Julie and Camille. Anne Bertreau plays Camille with a softer, more hesitant voice than Sophie’s very outgoing portrayal of Julie. Anne’s English is more accented too, so there was occasionally slight difficulty in making out some of her phrases.
Julie had her hair curled, she was dressed in jeans and a Mickey Mouse T shirt. She told us that she works at Disneyland Paris. It’s a fairly new job for her, and she gave hints of previous jobs that didn’t end well, and of problems managing her anger, but now she seems more settled. She’s arrived, she’s at Disneyland – ‘a dream world, the happiest place on Earth …”
On the other side of the stage was Camille. Her hair was left straight, and she wore a dress and a jacket. She was fiddling with a tape measure while Julie was telling us about herself, and when Camille started talking in her turn we learned that she’s pregnant, measuring up a room of her flat which will be the baby’s room when the child is born. Camille is from Nice – her husband Pierre is still there, but she’s come on ahead to London to get settled. So she’s an immigrant, an outsider, finding the language very difficult. Camille certainly wouldn’t know what someone meant by ‘skin and blister’.
Julie’s French too, working in Paris, so she’s not ‘an outsider’ as such, but the Disneyland job isn’t easy and it takes time to learn the ropes. At the beginning she’d been given a lot of support by Nayssam, who’s been there a while. Nayssam’s from Morocco, so she’s a real outsider. Not by language – she’s a French speaker like most educated North Africans, a legacy of French imperialism – but by her nationality, her culture, her religion, and by the colour of her skin.
Identity. Immigration. Assimilation. Belonging.
‘Behind Our Skin’ examines these interlocking themes through Julie and Camille’s parallel lives. The women don’t move around the stage very much, they simply stand and relate the events., but it was very engaging and we quickly got involved in their stories. It’s a beautifully written piece; the narratives overlapping at times, so that when Julie tells us that her job at Disneyland, smiling at everyone – “makes you the reason for the visitors’ happiness.”; we cut instantly to Camille, struggling with her English in London shops. She wants to smile, but – “it’s an act. I’m so unhappy.”
But – like most immigrants – they adapt to their new surroundings. Camille suffers from a sense of isolation initially, but she gradually makes friends with her neighbours.
Easier for some than others. As Julie tells us – Nayssam suffers from the ingrained racist attitudes of her French colleagues and of her manager. She’s suspected of a theft at work, questioned far more closely than her colleagues – “It’s not the first time I’ve been accused”. Nayseem must have come to France as a student – “the country of The Enlightenment. I discovered French philosophers and the world opened up”. But now – “I’ve given up on this country!”. At one point she rips down and pockets a card advertising a room to let – “With my name – I don’t have a chance to get this room unless I’m the only one applying”.
Watching this production, especially now, in the wake of the ‘Windrush’ scandal, made me think of our own British racist attitudes – and of the ‘No blacks. No Irish’ signs that adorned boarding houses in this country, not so long ago. At the end, Julie introduces Nayssam to her parents. “Mum, Dad. This is Nayssam.” A pause, while the older people don’t look directly at the Moroccan woman – “My friend.”
If theatre has any meaningful cultural function, it must be to point up moral and social problems and to make us aware of the possibilities that exist for our response. Immigration is an issue tearing our country apart at present, and I’m really pleased that Sweet Venues are hosting a European company like Yosis Theatre to take part in a festival like Brighton Fringe – and that a number of other foreign companies’ productions are here too, engaging with the same important themes.
‘Behind Our Skin’ could feel over-contrived, but the writers manage to keep the lessons believable – just. The final scenes take place on Bastille Day, 2016. The fourteenth of July.
In London, new mother Camille is in hospital with her husband, who’s recently arrived from Nice. In Paris, during the celebration fireworks, Julie and Nayssam are violently attacked by racist thugs, incensed by the Muslim woman’s headscarf. Shouting at her that all muslims are killers and that she should go home. Meanwhile, in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drives a 19 tonne truck into crowds of revellers on the Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 of them and injuring hundreds more.
How do we begin to deal with stuff like this? We can be hopeful. We can look at the bigger picture. We can thank the mysteries of fate – if Pierre hadn’t been with his wife, he’d have been out on the Promenade in Nice. Or we can work at it – we can stand together with Julie and say to people – “This is Nayssam. My friend.”