With events being held at Storyhouse, Chester Cathedral and Chester Little Theatre, Chester’s contribution to Refugee Week 2018 saw a diverse mix of dance, theatre and community events taking place.
As a follow up to his review of Take Refuge Under My Shade at Storyhouse, We Are Chester writer Paul Crofts went along to Chester Little Theatre as they presented a rehearsed script in hand staging of Moving Stories.
First performed at The National Theatre in 2016 in response to the growing humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, the original version of Moving Stories was curated by actress Emma Manton and performed by a cast of well-known actors, including Juliet Stevenson and David Morrissey.
The pieces were written by some of Britain’s leading playwrights including David Edgar, Michelle Terry and Stephanie Dale – writer of the 2013 Chester Mystery Plays and of The Lost Boy which received its world premiere at St Mary’s Creative Space in Chester last year.
This year, to mark the 20th Anniversary of Refugee Week, community groups across the country were encouraged to stage their own performances in aid of refugee agency UNHCR.
Organised by local actor Cassian Wheeler, the Chester performance featured eight pieces performed by 14 actors including two members of Chester Little Theatre’s Youth Theatre.
The event, staged in the packed out Salisbury Studio (such was the demand for tickets that extra seats had to be added), began after a short introduction from Cassian with a dramatisation of an extract from My Name Is Not Refugee, based on the award-winning children’s picture book by Kate Milner, performed by Zu Zu Walker and Harry Smith of CLT’s Youth Theatre.
With the adults taking the script in hand approach, these two talented youngsters showed them how it’s done by performing without the aid of a script.
A touching and timely exploration of migration aimed at younger people, Zu Zu and Harry delivered their lines with great maturity and professionalism and set the tone for what would be a moving and thought provoking evening.
Displaced and frightened
Each piece had a story to tell and a point to make and certainly gave the audience much to think about, forcing us to perhaps re-examine our own views of what it means to be a refugee and how the world and, indeed, we as individuals respond to their plight, what it is to be displaced, homeless, frightened of what the future may hold, confused, hungry, helpless. The biggest question we must ask ourselves is how and why this is allowed to happen in the 21st Century.
There was one poignant phrase which stood out for me during the evening but, I’ll come to that later.
The performers, Jane Barth, Sally Dillon, Clara Espinosa, Lexie Fox, Andy Hutchings, Marian Newman, Mark Newman, Charlie Nunez, Pippa Redmayne, Fiona Wheatcroft, Cassian Wheeler and Gail Young all did a sterling job with the sketches they were tasked with performing and reminded the audience just what a wealth of acting talent we have in the city.
There were some moments of humour amongst the serious dialogue and the cast kept the audience’s attention throughout.
The black box of the studio was the perfect setting for Moving Stories and the intimate space created an atmosphere which drew the audience in. No need for a flashy set, just a chair for each cast member and some excellent lighting courtesy of the ever reliable Mark Townend.
Knock Knock by Phil Porter, perfomed by Lexie and Andy, cleverly drew comparisons between a Knock Knock joke and a refugee – the joke, like the plight of the refugee, involves someone seeking to be allowed in.
A lighthearted way of getting across a serious point, the plight of the refugees is no laughing matter. Next up was Because, an extract from Testing The Echo by David Edgar, performed by Pippa, Marian, Cassian, Clara and Charlie.
Daunting new way of life
Set in an English class for speakers of other languages, it highlighted just how daunting it is to get used to a new way of life in a strange country, strange language, strange food etc but also examining the values and traditions that make the UK what it is. Are we really all the things we like to think we are as a nation when it comes down to it?
If there was one piece that felt slightly out of place, it was Knocker by Staten Cousins-Roe. and performed by Mark and Fiona. Set in an art gallery in which a character I presumed to be a terrorist (because he is carrying a ruck sack with something in it, he must be a terrorist – right?) is being persuaded to leave the building peacefully by a member of the security forces whilst she holds off the trigger happy armed response unit outside. (This was the one piece of the whole evening that if I’m honest I really didn’t understand and having spoken to the cast afterwards, I’m not sure even they did either), was the author trying to make us think about stereotypes? Well, maybe.
Refugees without a voice
Following Knocker, The Interview by Toby Davis and performed by Lexie, Andy and Charlie drew comparisons between an actress in a play who has no lines to deliver and refugees who are often without a voice due to language barriers and lack of appropriate interpreters during immigration interviews, as a result of the actions of some thoughtless and uncaring border control staff who create traumatic situations that could, with a little more understanding, be easily avoided.
One of my favourite sketches was Limbus by Stephanie Dale. Performed by Gail and Sally, it was set in a department store in which Gail played a customer having a free makeover by a make up artist played by Sally. With some comic interjections about foundation and skin tone giving the impression that the make up artist wasn’t clued up about world affairs, the sketch neatly made the point that we should never judge a book by its cover, as it transpired that our makeup artist had been a volunteer in a refugee camp, experiencing life at the sharp end. We are often too quick to judge, just because someone is now a refugee for example, it doesn’t mean they are somehow worthless and uneducated. Refugees are doctors, teachers, engineers, lawyers, actors, surgeons and, the make up artist in the department store might just have more experience of life than you think.
The penultimate piece, a monologue entitled Barbed by Michelle Terry and performed by Jane Barth was set in a conference hall at a gathering where a struggling actress, desperate for work has been given the job of extolling the virtues of barbed wire fencing whilst demonstrating to delegates the latest developments in ways of keeping refugees at arms length, a personal protection suit made out of razor wire.
Right at the end, our actress is seen to be wearing a blouse covered in blood as a result of being made to wear the very suit she is trying to promote, a very powerful image indeed.
Greed before humanity
The sketch worked on several fronts, it made us think about the costs and lengths that countries go to in order to fence refugees in, miles and miles of barbed and razor wire used for camps and borders, to herd the refugees together like cattle. It demonstrated too that there will always be companies, like barbed wire manufacturers, for whom millions of refugees means big business, greed before humanity, profit before people? I know which I would choose.
It also brought into focus the despair of the refugees, the analogy of the actress desperate for work, bleeding for the sake of earning a crust. What lengths would any of us go to to provide for our families and keep body and soul together?
The final piece, performed by the entire company was an extract from What They Took With Them by Jennifer Toksvig, a found poem based on verbatim and historic reports from refugees which asks the question “If you had to flee your home, what would you take?” Suddenly, everyday, mundane objects that we all take for granted take on vital importance, hairbrushes, laptops, mobile phones, toothbrushes, family photos, chargers, baby wipes, shampoo, pots and pans, the list goes on.
Such a moving and thought provoking work, beautifully performed by the cast. Can any of us really imagine the sheer panic and terror of suddenly being forced to flee our homes, separated from our loved ones, not knowing what the future holds and where we will end up, hungry, homeless, desperate?
I said earlier, there was one phrase which stood out during the evening and it is simply this – “No one chooses to be a refugee”. Surely there can not be a more powerful or simple a statement than that to answer the naysayers, the haters, those that say it is somehow the refugees’ own fault. To date, it is estimated by UNHCR that there are 68.5 million displaced people around the world, a truly staggering statistic.
Congratulations to Cassian and the entire cast and crew for bringing youto Chester and joining with the hundreds of other events throughout the UK as part of Refugee Week. Theatre works best when it makes us think differently and Moving Stories certainly achieved that.
At the time of writing, thanks to the support and generosity of the audience at Chester Little Theatre, this one off performance raised well in excess of £300 to support UNHCR’s work with Refugees. Further details about UNHCR and how you can help to support their work can be found at http://www.unhcr.org/uk
Pics show: Moving Stories poster.
Gail Young, Mark Newman and Fiona Wheatcroft during rehearsals.
ZuZu Walker of Chester Little Theatre’s Youth Group.
Harry Smith of Chester Little Theatre’s Youth Group
The cast of Moving Stories on stage in the Salisbury Studio at Chester Little Theatre.