FringeReview UK 2018
Directed by Mark Maugham it’s almost an installation play. Lewis Gibson’s sound subverts. Emma Bailey’s set is graced by a simple platform with a removable centre. Joshua Pharo’s vertical lighting strips boast forensically-bleached details. Till January 26th then tours till February 2nd.
The venue’s an unexpected but up-and-coming one. It’s also an ideal site for this remarkably-crafted play.
Tim Cowbury’s 75-minute dissection of cultural collision around asylum-seeking has reached Shoreditch for a more sustained run, having started out illustriously from Sheffield’s Crucible.
Directed by Mark Maugham it’s almost an installation play taking place in a town hall reception room not far removed from the kind asylum seekers endure. Lewis Gibson’s sound subverts: Elgar string pieces float in to underscore Britishness in a way recently seen at Mike Bartlett’s Albion at the Almeida. It sets off warnings, realised in a sudden dissonant cut. In a cunning integration with the environment, Emma Bailey’s set is graced by a simple platform with a removable centre, on which perches a single chair. Less throne than exposed place of inquisition the subject Serge, or Sese, from the Congo, is drawn into the language game he can only stumble in. Joshua Pharo’s vertical lighting strips boast the forensically-bleached details few in Sese’s position escape.
Cowbury’s three-hander is an intricately-managed affair of interrupted dialogue, brief suspensions when the applicant and official are talking in a different language, though all’s rendered in English, and the complete misunderstandings resulting.
There’s story. Sese wants to talk of the Willy Wonka one his father narrated on the night he disappeared at the end of the fourth chapter. It’s a key moment in Sese’s resolution to flee; his father’s vanished, probably killed. Official A to bond at least superficially speaks of Phineas Fogg whom he terms Willie Fogg, indicative of imposed narratives and textual confusions. More important is Sese’s relation of his ‘gum’ chewed for ‘peace’ misunderstood as ‘gun’ and ‘piece’ also nodding to Sese’s knowledge of U. S. cop TV.
Sese’s story would be simple if he could get it out. Ncuti Gatwa cuts a fine line between bafflement and amusement at A’s spaniel-like need to both identify, pseudo-empathise with and then undercut Sese with bouncy and stupid assumptions – born of job parameters and the abuse power makes from, in and of language. The title informs us it’s clearly Kafkaesque, and indeed that very skewed dialectic between suppliant and bureaucrat at the heart of Kafka haunts this play too.
Nick Blakeley’s neatly over-projected A is on one level a polished set of iterations or interruptions, how the word ‘holiday’ gets corrupted, used as a complicit narrative of overstay and taking advantage. A’s faulty memory and mistranslation plays havoc: suggesting some imposed idiocy, then with no corroborative from Sese except baffled interjection adopting it as narrative. Not that Sesi misunderstands. Invited to disrobe from his jacket A concedes ‘suit yourself’ only to be trounced with Sese’s playful ‘coat myself’. There’s several times when his command of pun is suspended between whatever French and English they’re meant to be in. There’s a tiny bit of licence, but it makes for exceptional theatrical sense, the obverse banter of a darkly-flipped coin.
Cowbury’s skills here are jewel-like, interruptions nightmarishly insistent: split sentences, slicing even a putative statement means we’re crackling with static even before the line manager B comes on the scene. Added to which A is sweet on her, taking B’s recommendation to visit Ios as a come-on. Their angry dynamics eventually overlay and further disrupt Sese, not least because B interprets Sese’s actions along the lines of her aggression, looping him back to a hideous travesty of translation, projecting on Sese B’s own anger, indeed even provoking it in the mildest way then refracting that as a tragic line crossed.
What’s clever about this is its plausibility. Sese is talking mostly in French, occasionally broken English (all of this rendered in English), and most though crucially not all the time A correctly translates the unproblematic parts of Sese’s testimony. It makes his inability or impatience to catch the basics of it the more chilling.
Blakeley nudges just past the hapless to the gormless, particularly when he pushes his own boundaries with B, which concatenate. You watch in appalled fascination.
B’s straight-down-the-line-manager’s more hostile responses interrogate the denotative un-metaphoric but even deadlier set of misunderstandings, based on B’s assumptions. Yusra Warsama’s portrayal of contained ferocity and resentment contrasts with the fluffiness and downright inaccuracy of her would-be beau. Not least she only speaks English anyway, but soon provokes Sesi. Warsama’s chilling shut-down full of correctness as she strips Gatwa’s character even of the comfort of his mobile phone and allows him to think he needs to remove his shoes is a beautifully-wrought bit of containment. Gatwa’s responses at all times remain the Everyman of bewildered gagging, realising how wide A and B are of his mark, which he thought so prominent. Naturally in English it’s easy for the audience to see it too.
There’s a hint of the way Mike Bartlett uses techniques to box some characters in, as in Contractions, Bull and even King Charles III. But Cowbury’s minutely-worked set of nuances interrogates the nature of interrogation, language and understanding itself in a different way.
Ultimately this is a play putting humanity and the limits of empathy on trial. The whole refugee crisis, bureaucracy’s way of distorting and dishonouring,witnesses a kind of glare that’s corruptive as well as officious. These days with increased border tensions, it’s universal too.
There’s been a focus on audience response and participation, actors have changed and as the tour progresses a very clear permission sought of refugees to tell their stories via prescribed routes. This dimension adds to the play’s excellence, the two year research Cowbury has undertaken still continuing as conversation. Beyond that it asks more perennial questions. It’s a vital, seminal work on how we misunderstand our humanity.