We tell ourselves stories in order to live.-Joan Didion, The White Album
Before Aeschylus, Homer. Before dramatists, storytellers. Before storytellers, nothing, surely. As children, we adore stories of all kinds. Fairy tales, epic poems, ghost stories told around a campfire. Then, we grow up. We learn to privilege theme and character (at least in theatre making) over narrative. I sometimes wonder, distracted by shiny novelties like dialogue, whether we’ve forgotten the power of simply telling stories.
Luckily, there are still playwrights lured by the potential of the storytelling form. Behind Our Skin, which originally appeared in Edinburgh last year and at the Brighton Fringe earlier this year, is an inventive example of narrative-driven writing by Anne Bertreau.
Two French women, unknowingly connected through the tenuous thread of a single tragic event, tell separate stories of immigration on opposite sides of the stage. Julie (Anne Bertreau) has been seeing a therapist for anger management. Camille (Sophie Bertreau) has moved to London with her husband for his new job. Julie’s therapist, rather perversely, suggests a job at Disneyland Paris might help her learn to control her anger. Across the Channel, pregnant, shy Camille struggles to navigate a new world alone while her husband works increasingly-long hours.
At Disneyland, Julie befriends Naysam, a fellow employee of Moroccan descent. Naysam’s humour and warmth teaches Julie more about controlling anger than her therapist does, and more about her colleagues’ casual racism, too. When a bag goes missing, more questions are asked of Naysam than anyone else and she quits in protest. Meanwhile, Julie attempts to preserve their fledgling friendship, questioning her own implicit prejudices as she comes face to face with the uglier side of racism during a Bastille Day attack on Naysam. Back in London, Camille must endure an emergency situation with only her neighbours for support. Her husband is home in Nice enjoying the Bastille Day holidays. Nice. Bastille Day. Migrants. Racism. The connections become clear.
While Camille and Julie’s stories are less complex and nuanced than one might wish, perhaps there’s something to be said for looking at migrant racism and integration through the lens of the unspectacular everyday. Rather than the shock-factor horror of certain unmentionable newspapers, Behind Our Skin compares the everyday prejudices of people who don’t see the racism in unconsciously suspecting a darker-skinned person of theft with the everyday experiences of an ‘acceptable’ migrant.
The subject of migration and its attendant racism and discrimination seem particularly well-suited to the storytelling form. Yet, as poetic and moving as Before Our Skin is in the watching, in hindsight, it could benefit from greater narrative clarity. While Camille’s story is well-defined, Julie’s slowly contorts into Naysam’s. This would be less concerning were it a deliberate transition, an experiment with the form, but I suspect this isn’t the case. By midway, one feels as if Julie is telling Naysam’s story rather than her own (or indeed rather than Naysam telling her own story) and, given the play’s theme, this is a problematic shift. Yet, despite its imperfections, in its ability to evoke considerable empathy for the women at its heart (thanks largely to the touching performances of the Bertreau sisters), Behind Our Skin enchants.
Behind our Skin is on until 11 August 2018 at C Venues. Click here for more information.