For traditionalists, this is a heartening time for new writing in the theatre. Suddenly there seems to a plethora of young playwrights with a proper respect for the virtues of shape, climax and release, for solid character and plotting, who are happy to provide a satisfying evening in the theatre without one eye on the future TV play or film.
Eye of a Needle is a tense, well-crafted, topical tragi-comedy, satiric in places but also humane and wise.
Newcomer Chris MacDonald is one such. Eye of a Needle is a tense, well-crafted, topical tragi-comedy, satiric in places but also humane and wise. Set in what used until recently to be the UK Border Agency building at Croydon, it portrays a system in which the guardians of the gates are as much victims as those seeking to come through.
The idealistic rookie and the tough cynical veteran. In abstract it’s almost the ultimate cliché. But in MacDonald’s hands and as acted by Stephen Hudson (young Lawrence) and Nic Jackman (tough Ted) the relationship bristles with felt life.
The object of contention is Natalie (Ony Uhiara), a lesbian Ugandan asylum seeker, whose fear and pain are palpable. The brutality of a system which takes people at their most vulnerable point and asks impossible questions – ‘show us the scars from your torture’, ‘prove you’re a lesbian’ - of those who have lost or left all traces of their past life in the headlong rush to escape. MacDonald takes a scalpel to this, and is particularly effective about the absurdity of trying to get witness statements about homosexuality from people in a country where even to talk about gayness is to risk death.
The play’s main theme is how Lawrence grows up as Natalie’s case progresses, and he is drawn into sympathy and even affection for the pinned butterfly under his microscope. Again it is something of a cliché as an idea, the cop and the ‘criminal’ falling for each other, but here it is invested with so much more. Lawrence is at first careless, callow, more interested in texting than truth; he comes to care, but then has to learn not to care again, in order to preserve his sanity as the system buckles under the pressure of need. 250,000 cases outstanding, and rising.
It would do no one any favours to say more about the plot, which has a killer twist. The fast-moving production never lets up; between the short sharp scenes, characters move quickly and geometrically between and along the battered lines of institutional chairs. Fast, seemingly purposeful and going nowhere. It’s a powerful metaphor.
Performances are uniformly excellent and three-dimensional. Uhiara is a commanding presence as the asylum seeking Natalie. Her immense dignity and authority puts her interrogators on trial, reversing the situation. Stephen Hudson goes convincingly from hungover slacker to committed campaigner, in a slightly mannered performance reminiscent of James McAvoy. However, the hard-bitten Ted is perhaps the most convincing and original part, who also has the advantage of getting the best, the funniest lines. Ostensibly voicing every Daily Mail reader’s prejudice, in Nic Jackman’s hands this becomes a carapace shrouding a desperation, a tragic awareness of his own diminished humanity, and a desire to protect not only himself but the hopelessly naïve Lawrence. It is a dense, multi-layered performance.
There is plenty of comedy, especially in the opening scene where a Nigerian is claiming to be gay in order to get into the UK. (“Me and my friends we are having sex all of the time. Do you know the Rusty Trombone?”) MacDonald is fair enough to admit there are liars and cheats around, which adds to the tension of the main story. But at the end of the process, as a result of decisions by people like Ted and Lawrence, others die.
This is a powerful, heartfelt, necessary piece of theatre. On a human level it works utterly. However, while it clearly demonstrates a system, in the words of a previous Home Secretary, ‘not fit for purpose’, it never asks what exactly the purpose is. Why do we want to keep people out when we are crying out for someone to earn the money to pay for all our pensions? Why would anyone want to come to this pinched, puritan, mean-minded country in the first place, rather than, say, Scandinavia? Why do we fetishize nationality? We are bound on a wheel of fire courtesy of the First World War – another of the many undesirable legacies not mentioned in the current anniversary commemorations. Without wishing to turn Eye of a Needle into a different kind of play, a little more context would not have come amiss.