Edinburgh Fringe 2010
A powerful piece of verbatim theatre examining the lives of displaced Georgians in a refugee camp. Virtuoso performances from the five strong ensemble give voice to compelling stories.
‘Refugees’ has become just a word, a cipher that holds lots of people’s stories but doesn’t unpack them: a word we hear on the news that distances us from those it represents. What Do We Look Like Refugees? does so beautifully is to unpack the word and reveal the people behind them, people just like us with stories to tell.
These stories are told by five actors who act out of their skins giving stunning performances which transcend any barriers of language or culture to connect us directly with the refugees. The play opens with projected images of the war and the camp, and with the actors speaking in English setting the scene, explaining to their fellow refugees that the interviewer is not a television reporter but a playwright recording their voices for a play.
Do We Look Like Refugees? is a piece of verbatim theatre created from a collaboration between the National Theatre Studio in London, Rustaveli Theatre, and the British Council. In autumn 2009, the Rustaveli invited British playwright, Alecky Blythe, to visit Georgia, where she collected testimonies from the Tserovani camp for people displaced by the war between Georgia and Russia over the disputed territory of South Ossetia.
Verbatim playwright, Alecky Blythe, has a distinctive approach: not a word is changed and the script is fed to the actors through headphones. The actors listen and repeat, reproducing not just the words but the intonation with every stutter, cough and hesitation. From here, the actors create very real characters that touch and reach out to us.
Local government officials at the camp read out endless lists of people entitled to compensation, people come and come again but there is nothing to hand out. The compensation list dehumanises people to numbers, their stories restore their humanity.
Characters tell of what they have lost; others talk of daily life at the camp, which is rapidly becoming their new normality. Ordinary day-to-day chat is cut through with heartbreaking loss as people hang on to the semblance of normal life.
A beekeeper tells of the loss of his bees and his desire to start again. A hairdresser sets up business in the camp and finds new clients among the displaced and their visitors. A woman visits her sick mother in Tsibilisi 20 miles away but needs a pass to travel. Romances start, marriages are made and babies are born.
People eat, drink and make merry, telling us that even when they are living on the breadline it’s still necessary to buy wine to extend hospitality and greet visitors. “We are Georgians. We might not have much but we share everything. Do we look like refugees?” a man tells us.
And then there are the songs – lyrical, lilting harmonies that will haunt you long after you leave the theatre.
While there is sadness and heartbreak here, what we are left with is not despondency but a sense of the overwhelming indomitability of the human spirit: the pride in national identity, the Georgian hospitality and humour.
The refugees have been stripped of everything: “We have lost our homes, the most basic human right”. If you ever had doubts about the validity of verbatim theatre, this is the play that will set those doubts to rest. Do We Look Like Refugees? gives those without voices a profound and powerful voice.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a play in Georgian is not for you: this really is an experience not to be missed. Flawless performances, a well-constructed and eloquent script, well-judged use of projection and tight direction make Do We Look Like Refugees? a must-see.