Do We Look Like Refugees?!
Theatre Royal Plymouth 1 – 4 June at Drum Theatre
£8 – 12
Running Time 50 mins
After being so emotionally torn apart by Asylum Monologues (Actors for Human Rights) in 2007 due to which I have since been creating arts and theatre programs for asylum seekers and refugees, I was extremely excited about this production. Do We Look Like Refugees?! was developed as a part of an ongoing three-year partnership between the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi and the National Theatre Studio.
Written by Alecky Blyth (The Girlfriend Experience) this piece is verbatim theatre which is the heart of the company she founded, Recorded Delivery. Recorded delivery is also a specific technique that is sometimes used in verbatim theatre where edited recordings are played live to the actors through earphones during the rehearsal process, and on stage in performance. The actors listen to the audio and repeat what they hear. They copy not just the words but exactly the way in which they were first spoken. Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced. The actors do not learn the lines at any point. By listening to the audio during performances the actors remain accurate to the original recordings, rather than slipping into their own patterns of speech.
The story is set in the Georgian War 2008 when fighting broke out between Georgia and Russia in South Ossetia, a northern region of Georgia, which is claimed by both countries. It is estimated that around 26,000 people had to flee their homes and move into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps. At the time when Russian troops defeated the Georgians and advanced on Tbilisi there was a media frenzy and the EU eventually intervened and a ceasefire was reached. Since then we hear no more about it but tensions remain between Georgia and Russia and Georgians are still unable to return to the disputed territory. The play was created from audio recordings collected from Tserovani IDP camp, 20 kilometers from Tbilisi. It was powerful to see a production based on an event that happened recently but is no longer talked about. We often forget that when a piece leaves the media that people in those stories have to keep living them many years after we read about it.
Having the performers wear earphones throughout the entire performance and sometimes being able to hear the faint original voice through the earpiece is a reminder to the audience that the actors are reliving lives. The stories we hear vary from short amusing anecdotes to more startling accounts of what displaced persons experienced. The staging was minimal and with clothes racks on either side the actors would be consistently changing characters with the help of a prop/costume adjustment.
The backdrop was a large screen displaying images of everyday life at an IDP. Often it showed basic images of an official persons desk, the landscape or a war tank. What was unique about this production was the detail of the everyday. Often in performances regarding traumatic experiences of the oppressed the focus is to shock the audience into feeling sorrow for the characters on stage. Do We Look Like Refugees?! takes the braver route of the of the less shocking moments, not of the people who were killed or tortured but instead the lives revolving around hairs salons, marriages and births. In this subtle fashion the story gently tells us of the people who have enough to eat and live but may never be allowed to return home.
The play was spoken in Georgian and whilst I am an advocate for people having the right to speak their own tongue in performance and not needing to speak English to attract audiences- the English subtitles were too high on the screen. This may have been because it is a touring production and the seating arrangement and screen is likely to differ in each venue. However, because of this the audience are forced to choose if they want to watch the powerful performances of the actors- or if they want to know what was is being said in the story. I flitted between the two and as a result I felt that I missed large chunks of the tales and with actors changing character so much I did become confused.
The highlight of the performance for me were the two short songs of which I would have liked to have heard more of. It was in this moment that the audience could sit back and relax and not have to worry about where to look on the stage. The performers were talented musicians and their singing voices were rich and filled with emotion. Having recently finished a project at a detention centre where asylum seekers are held by immigration the songs reminded me of those that I heard many detainees sing and they touched my soul.