Edinburgh Fringe 2019
Serge stands before us to tell his story of why he is seeking sanctuary in the UK but those listening to his words interrupt, misunderstand and misinterpret in a wickedly funny Kafkaesque interpretation of the absurdity of our immigration system.
Two men circle around each other – one has a story to tell and the other one is paid to listen to it. How difficult can that be? Pretty difficult it turns out as Serge and many other asylum seekers like him have found out to their cost. Serge repeatedly tries to tell his story, but his words are misheard and misinterpreted, and he is constantly interrupted.
Initially Serge (Ery Nzaramba), an asylum seeker from the Democratic Republic of Congo, seems to be having a friendly if exasperating conversation with A (Nick Blakeley), a Home Office worker. They’re speaking, it transpires, in a language other than English: Serge’s native language, a foreign language to A. Searching for the word for flying from Africa to Europe A comes up with the word ‘incontinent’, Serge laughingly corrects this to ‘intercontinental’. The potential for comic misunderstanding is well realised and Nzaramba and Blakely play off each other with all the skills of a comic double act – there are beautifully realised subtle facial movements that convey each character’s true feelings about their interaction. We only manage to get fragments of Serge’s story as A veers off into his own preoccupations: a forthcoming holiday to Ios, his co-worker, his own anxieties.
But it’s when A’s co-worker, B (Emmanuella Cole), comes upon the scene that the absurdism of the mistranslations moves rapidly from comedy to black comedy through to tragic misunderstanding. The co-workers play off against each other: A more procedure bound, B vying for her attention. Using A as translator B prises Serge’s story from him, rife with misunderstandings. Asking where he has come from, Serge answers Streatham. They mishear ‘gum’ for ‘gun’; his talk of his ‘piece’ leads to a mangled mash up of a story that seems very far from what Serge is trying to tell them, and critically even further from one which will ensure his asylum claim is well received.
The production is well realised and directed by Mark Maughan, whether it works as well as it might in theatre in the round is debatable (the later tension might be better ratcheted up in a more conventional space that forces the characters into more oppositional stances). Another problem of the space is that the lighting in the Roundabout tent feels more Close Encounters of the Third Kind than lighting change.
Nonetheless this is an exciting and hugely entertaining production. Using much first hand research into the refugee experience in the UK, the creative team spent two years researching and developing the show by spending time at immigration courts, working closely with asylum seekers and refugees and working with representatives from migrant organisations. Tim Cowbury’s excellent script plays with the power of words and of storytelling to satirise and expose the UK’s torturous immigration system. The migrants seeking sanctuary here might have a story to tell but how well are we listening to their stories?