The debate surrounding refugees, migrants and asylum seekers has dominated the political scene both internationally and domestically for decades. It’s an issue that won’t go away, as one region after another becomes embroiled in the circumstances that cause people to leave their homes to seek a safer and brighter future in another land.
A spectacular piece of theatre and personal insight into the plight of the most vulnerable
At the end of the twentieth century the focus was on Kosovo. The war there officially ended in June of 1999 but the repercussions were still raging in the region long after. In 2002 an 11-year-old boy is sent packing by his father on the highly dangerous and harrowing journey to London as an unaccompanied asylum-seeker. That boy was Dritan Kastrati, co-writer, along with Nicola McCartney, of How Not to Drown and lead actor in the ThickSkin and Traverse Theatre Company ensemble production now at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.
Knowing that the man on stage is the boy who lived through and survived the events he relates makes the production all the more compelling. Kastrati went on to graduate from Frantic Assembly’s Ignition Company for whom director Neil Bettles has also worked and How Not to Drown bears the stamp of that company’s style from the outset. The wow factor that goes with the inevitable wealth of movement and physicality staged by Jonnie Riordan
is accommodated on Becky Minto’s elevated diamond-shaped wooden stage whose slope points into the audience and subsequently stirs further action on its revolve. Add to this a remarkably impactful composition and sound design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite and lighting by Zoe Spurr and we have overall stunning set of effects.
Kastrati’s story permeates this sensory minefield, and the use of simple barricade props and other items creates various locations from Kosovo to London, via Albania, the Adriatic, Bari, Italy, Switzerland and Brussels and from storms at sea to queues at railways stations and the terrifyingly blacked-out and cramped interior of a freight container. There is daylight in England but a dark cloud hangs over the boy’s future in various foster homes and through multiple bullying experiences in different schools. He’d encountered smugglers, crooks and criminals, whores and hospitality, met up with his brother and been separated from him and now over several years goes on to bang his head against the brick wall of the social care system and the Home Office. He meets many kind or at least well-meaning people and faces separation from his family with fortitude and fights, anger and acceptance and the memories of the values he was taught by his father.
Others in the ensemble, Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill and Sam Reuben also play the boy as Kastrati himself changes roles. Together they take on an array of characters, seamlessly moving from one to the other in all the various locations and through the events. It's a slick production but perhaps one in which the medium triumphs over the message. There is something of an emotional ending as Kastrati, reunited with his family, finds that after so many formative years away he belongs nowhere, but it's not the dramatic tear-jerker that might have been anticipated.
How Not to Drown offers a spectacular piece of theatre and personal insight into the plight of the most vulnerable, putting a face on those who seek a life that so many take for granted and who fall victim to the inadequacies of policies engineered by governments.