Fringe Online 2021
Jermyn Street Theatre in Partnership with Refugee Action
Directed by Cat Robey for JST’s Footprints Festival. Designed by Louie Whitmore. Lighting and Video Design by Richard Owen. Composer and Sound Designer Sophia Eleni. Producer. Annie Tayler Camera work from several angles (Director Mark Swadel, Operator Balazs Weidner), including seventy-five degrees overhead, are deftly sequenced. Till July 22nd. Filmed and may be later available as stream.
We last saw Sophia Eleni in 15 Heroines, the fifteen short plays based around Ovid premiered here last November. Here Eleni returns with dramatist Ivan Faute to revisit her family’s recent past – and she’s the composer and sound designer for this solo play too.
Faute’s (and Eleni’s) On Arriving is how you go in plastic slippers to collect cucumbers for your mother and return with an armful of fate: fiancé, baby and air strikes arrive out of the blue, neighbours who feared are proved right. Now soldiers take your young husband and leave the lame father; and it’s time to leave. ‘He can see the horizon, beyond today.’ Today’s dark, the husband’s right. This viscerally performed narrative deep in shadow brings a riveting performance from Eleni.
Faute starts chronologically then we leap back and round chronology. Here it jolts you to seeing how before could be any modern city, with a little added shelling.
Eleni veers between shuddering tragedy and laughter, storytelling, tenderness and the delicacies of a mother’s love for a child making mud pies, mud tea, ‘our aunt who could catch pieces of the sun and make them into a warming paste’; as borders file refugees in queues and strip their identity into statistics. A string for an absent cat, now for auntie. A duck without a bill.
Directed with a classic line by Cat Robey for JST’s Footprints Festival, it’s minimally designed by Louie Whitmore with the two JST backed chairs to allow lighting and video design by Richard Owen to sculpt the scenery. Bright sunlit wooden floor, violet and indigo backdrop.
Mostly it’s tenebrous, all browns down to Eleni’s chocolate and beige clothing, the dun-coloured dust of a refugee clinging to everything – so as not to be too visible. Later a blue waterproof in virtual blackness suggests someone doled out a new bleak existence. Eleni’s sound design is discreet. JST produce this in partnership with Refugee Action, and there’s a code at the end to raise your device to donate to.
Eleni’s tale unwinds and spools back. Aunt, father, a young mother and child who don’t take that truck over the border and return empty; and are forced out to trek again.
When the chronology leaps back we’re illumined in several happier times then abruptly sunk in midnight blue and a blanketed Eleni, now just with aunt and baby; crossing with a man who’s had three minutes training to guide a tiller. The crossing is the most terrible narrative bar one. Each brief flashback illumines the next phase, a present dilemma. The memory of Alan Kurdi’s three-year-old body washed up, intensifies present fears.
Faute and Eleni refuse to over-light these narrational shifts, keeping them fluid, with subtler lighting and a simple brightening of vocal tone. One small reservation might be a structural slow-burn eddy, which Eleni’s presence bridges. It’s very occasional. Since this play is rooted in witness, it’s difficult to fault this – just to suggest a potential drop in pace for any other actor to navigate.
Mostly though we drive inexorably forward. At the end Eleni tears into the stark zero of a refugee who stands to lose everything. Just what she comes away with is worth waiting for.
Lighting and subtle movement between chairs means the focus is on Eleni’s expressive face and voice, multi-faceted, always intense even in laughter, unforgettable in juddering howls stifled in a foreign land, blankly taking the comfort and discomfort of strangers. Eleni’s hypnotic performance though always tenebrous, always just slipping into the dark, is as fiery as a struck match. Yet she’s classically contained – with just a few explosive rituals to expiate.
It’s not just Eleni’s presence that flares with the humanity cindered by our own cruelty. Her whole performance, these words, say you should be on fire too. Though On Arriving takes sixty minutes it seems we’ve been immersed in a Greek Tragedy of ninety. See it.