“We didn’t want to make a sob story,” explains Tim Cowbury. “Or even just a realist drama about what it’s like inside the Home Office.” The playwright and theatremaker is the author of The Claim, a bleakly funny play about the drawn-out interview asylum seekers entering the UK have to go through. Or, as the play’s director, Mark Maughan describes it, “The slow car crash of that interview.”
Based around three characters – the un-named ‘A’ and ‘B’ who work for the British government, and Serge, a young African man now living in London – The Claim is probably best described as an absurdist comedy filled with mishearings, mistranslations, and the general buffoonery and self-absorption of the officials. Both creatives are emphatic in conveying just how broken the British Asylum process is – “It’s a completely fucked system,” summarises Maughan – so why did they decide humour was the best vehicle for approaching it?
“I think it’s partly just a default impulse for me if you’ve got a sad, tragic subject matter to play against that with some opposite texture.” Cowbury starts off. “But also because the more we found out about the asylum system and this particular interview, the more it was described to us as an absurd comedy or a comedy of errors that’s like the living embodiment of Kaftka’s The Trial. My friend worked for a charity called Detention Action and the first thing he said to me was, ‘Just read The Trial if you want to know what it’s like. That’s your research: just do that’.”
Cowbury and Maughan started working on The Claim not long after meeting at the Edinburgh Fringe. Maughan had seen Gym Party, a show by Made in China, the theatre company Cowbury co-runs with Jess Latowicki, and – in his words – “fanboyed” the creators in the courtyard of Summerhall to tell them how much he liked it (“You basically stalked us,” teases Cowbury). Not long after, they started working on an early incarnation of The Claim.
“I initially had an idea around citizenship and the citizenship text people have to do to get indefinite leave to remain,” Maughan explains. But they later decided that, although interesting and inherently flawed, the citizenship test didn’t offer nearly as much to grapple with as the asylum application interview. They did, however, know from the off that they wanted to create something focusing on the fallibility of language.
“I wanted to do something about the slipperiness of language, the way words don’t sit still and the way we can make one story morph into another,” says Cowbury.
They also embarked on a long period of research – two years, in fact – in which they worked with a number of migrant charities and related organisations interviewing people who have experienced the asylum process, running workshops, and continually receiving feedback on the play as it developed.
Cowbury describes the asylum system as one of those topics where, “if you’re going to do a little bit of research, you have to do a lot.” The pair were also very aware of their position as “two British citizens who have always been British citizens and [therefore] have no reference point for what it is like to go through that thing.” Save for one documentary about the equivalent American system, there was also “no media representation” of the interview at that point. There are also certain parts of the process the public are legally allowed to witness, but the interview itself is not open to wider viewing. Thus, one of the ideas behind The Claim is to put on display a hidden but routine part of some people’s entry to Britain and ask, as Maughan says: “‘Are we ok with this?’ Are we ok that this is a legal system that is totally failing, and is corrupt, terrible, dehumanising and awful?”
Working with each other on the project for so long also served an artistic purpose. The Claim is Cowbury’s first ‘play’ in the sense of a script in a book, previously he’s co-authored shows with Latowicki and worked collaboratively with her and others, including Chris Brett Bailey. Although he sees himself writing more plays-that-can-go-on-a-
“I hate writing without getting feedback,” he says. “I don’t understand… I almost don’t even believe that playwrights really do that. Maybe they do, but I think they all secretly have loads of readers, loads of cheerleaders as they’re going along, loads of people asking them questions…”
What does produce results for him is running workshops from an early stage in the development process (as they did with The Claim) and working alongside others. So although the script is, strictly speaking, the creation of Cowbury, it’s fair to say that Maughan is, in many ways, its de facto co-creator. And while Cowbury doesn’t feel there’s much distinction in his work as ‘a playwright’ versus his work with Made in China, Maughan feels similarly ambivalent about being ‘a director’.
“It’s shorthand, I guess,” he posits, before explaining that his next project, a dance-theatre piece with Dan Daw about disability and kink at Sadler’s Wells, has involved a similarly loose approach to the exact role a ‘director’ is traditionally assumed to take in making a piece of theatre.
Yet despite being desirable from an artistic standpoint, this preferred method of developing a play over a period of workshops and research doesn’t sit so neatly with funding and programming models. Funding for workshops is, Cowbury explains, “hard to come by”. Moreover, it’s tricky to pitch an incomplete play to theatres who always prefer receiving completed, narrative-driven texts, not in-development concepts. He recalls an early pitch meeting relating to The Claim which was “A bit painful because it felt like they really wanted us to articulate in a nutshell what the piece was, in terms of what narrative it would have.”
He also suggests that Arts Council funding has, in general, become much harder to access, whatever the process of creation being used. “Maybe we were just lucky [with Made in China] but we got our first grant in 2012 and we didn’t get rejected until last year,” he shares. In contrast, Maughan and Cowbury put in three unsuccessful applications to the Arts Council over two years for The Claim. Being turned down forced them to look elsewhere for funding, including establishing relationships with theatres, trusts and the various migrant organisations they’ve worked alongside. Maughan mentions that doing so had the accidental effect of “protecting the future life of the play”, including allowing them to take it to the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. But both are keen to stress that seeking alternatives to Arts Council funding is never ideal.
“I don’t think it’s a very sustainable model,” Cowbury states “And it can’t be expected of artists. This is quite a political thing for me; this is what the Arts Council wants, they want to push people away to get funding elsewhere and I don’t want us to give the impression that’s an approach we advocate. It was Hell. And you [Mark] pulled it off. But if you had to do it four more times, I think it would send you into meltdown.”
The other thing they’ve pondered is how to position the play, in respect of marketing copy and the information available to audiences. While acknowledging that the play’s timely topic likely contributed to theatres wanting to programme it – it comes to Shoreditch Hall as part of its third run with a new cast, after which it goes to Brazil later this year. There are also plans for a new production happening at a theatre in Berkley, USA – they wanted to avoid all preconceptions about ‘asylum seekers’, ‘refugees’ and what a piece of theatre on those topics would be like. The marketing blurb, for example, never uses the term ‘refugee’ and only refers to ‘those seeking refuge’ in its final sentence.
“We do want to make audience members feel enough that they’ll go out and not just forget about the show,” Cowbury says hesitantly, “But I’ve always felt uneasy…. Well this is basically what I’m doing a PhD on, about how much theatre can directly create change.”
Similarly to how he didn’t want to make a heart-wrenching sob story, he also didn’t want to create what he calls “Political Theatre with a capital P and a capital T.”
“We have a lot of good journalism that can do the job I think, sometimes, a lot of issue plays and issue-based theatre wants to do,” he says, before noting that they could have made a much more “on the nose” version of The Claim.
But aside from just being didactic, that type of more overtly ‘political theatre’ isn’t necessarily the most effective method of sharing an idea with an audience. Essentially, it boils down to what do the things only theatre, not documentaries or newspaper articles, can give you. “I don’t need you to tell me the facts about this thing… I want you to give me something that I can only get to in this room that I’ve trekked to across town,” says Cowbury.
So what, I ask, is the ‘thing’ that can only be experienced in the theatre?
“Maybe this is ‘the director’ speaking,” begins Maughan, “but I think it’s that gut feeling.”
“Yeah,” joins in Cowbury. “It’s a collective feeling, and that’s distinctive. To be under one roof with a lot of people and to go through one thing together is quite a rare thing. So that feeling, but not just an individual, that feeling in a hundred people in a room.”
And that’s where the humour really comes in. It might seem at odds with the subject matter on an intellectual level but it doesn’t on an emotional one, in how it captures the teeth-grating, intractable horror of the situation depicted.
“It’s the frustration,” says Maughan. “It builds in the room.”
The Claim is on at Shoreditch Town Hall from 18 February to the 7 March (excluding 6 March).