Saturday, 25 July 2009

Desperate for a new life

The Container by Clare Bayley

The Young Vic, London

For five people, England represents hope: of safety and a new life.

For Fatima and her daughter Asha, they are trying to escape war and refugee camps in Somalia.

Jemal, a middle-aged businessman, is trying to get away from Afghanistan.

Ahmed, a Kurd who grew up and was educated in the UK, before being deported to Turkey after the government decided it was safe for Kurds, is trying to get back to his partner and child.

And teacher Mariam is fleeing Afghanistan after threats from the Taliban, who have already murdered her husband, a fellow teacher who dared to teach girls.

All of them are now together, locked into a shipping container as it makes its way west to the English Channel and a new life. And all of them have put their faith – and their hopes – in The Agent, a human traffiker.

Clare Bayley’s play, which premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007, winning a Fringe First and the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression award, never descends to mawkishness or tries to score cheap, sentimental points.

The writing is straightforward and the characters utterly believable and flawed.

Many of those who will see the play at its run at the Young Vic will already be familiar with the sort of stories that her refugee characters tell, but two things stop The Container merely repeating what might be familiar.

Staging the play in a real shipping container, with pallets and packing cases to seat an audience of just 28, is an inspired approach. Once seated, the door is locked and the container descends into total darkness. The container itself vibrates slightly and sound effects add to the suggestion that we’re travelling along a road. It’s a very, very effective way of concentrating the mind on what people really put themselves through in order to gain safety and a better life.

Once the door has been locked and we’ve had a taste of the silence, the actors emerge from packing cases and boxes, and use small, hand-held torches to cast some illumination on proceedings.

The acting space is concomitantly tiny and the action as in-your-face as it’s possible to be. It is with great relief that vomiting, peeing and defecation are only represented by sound effects, but the ramifications of such bodily functions having to be carried out in such a space is brought home loud and clear.

What one is left with is the desperation: the bleakness of human existence that drives people to put themselves in such a situation, with such high risks. That people, damaged appallingly by horrendous experiences fight so hard to lift themselves out of those situations.

The performances are good, the direction tight and the plot never panders to easy answers.

A thought-provoking and very moving play.

Watch out for Bayley – she's got more work on the way and, if this is anything to go by, it will be worth seeing.

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