We sit in a circle. We are in Lampedusa, part of the Italian Pelagie Islands, lying close to Africa. Stefano, a fisherman, in direct address, describes the Mediterranean which once served as ‘Caesar’s highway’. But his kindly looking face creases with anger, the sea is now a road for refugees piling onto the island from the continent. And they won’t stop coming even as the sea claims life after life, body after body. Bodies Stefano is paid to retrieve. And of those who do make it, Stefano can only say ‘Why are we’ – ‘left to deal with this alone?’
Then Denise takes over his monologue. She is thousands of miles away in the UK, collecting money for a loan company. She too is bitter. For her disabled mother whose benefits are being contested. At those who refuse to pay up when she comes knocking. At the public school boys who spit on her for being a ‘chinky cunt’…‘Middle class people think racism is free speech now’ (do they?)
Back to Stefano. He crosses the stage peeling an orange. He can’t do anything about the EU’s refusal to rescue the migrants when their boats go down. With his eyes, he comes into your space uninvited.
When he speaks, telling you stories of those who die, a mix of anger and pity, do you feel uncomfortable? When he shines a torch on you, as if you are a refugee struggling to stay afloat in the surf, do you feel terror at the intrusiveness? Space and being scrutinised and judged, not least by the playwright, is everything in this show (who is judging whom? it’s not so simple and it is impossible not to contextualise) and so is shape- there are circles in the design everywhere. And Stefano and Denise sit in each other’s spaces – they are hot seats for psychological states and emotions. They migrate the space. Finally as their thematically linked stories find joy through empathy, they kneel near each other, a simple image.These are the terms on which we must engage.
In the introduction to Anders Lustgarten’s newest play, shining a light on the plight of thousands of migrants crossing to Lampedusa each year and on the pressures this has on residents already there, and on a dual heritage woman struggling to make a life in the UK, the writer and activist claims he wants change. And one does feel that this kind of play is an answer to those unhelpful typically British dystopias that explore social change, yet still go to bed with romantic idealisms. In contrast, Lampedusa is experiential realism. It is a very ordinary and simple play (therefore unsafe) and it is ‘a plea against expositional nationalism’ and a plea for transnationalism.
Which is not a strange thing to say about a play that is about migration. The characters constantly move across the wooden circular stage which could be the world. They move into us, their direct address asks us to accept their stories. And they emotionally migrate and embrace, thematically and narratively, the transnational that is given to them.
Perhaps this is what Anders Lustgarten means by change and by talking about migration. It’s activism starting with self. Both characters might rail against or mistrust those who, initially, they see as the ones who are the cause of their problems. But in the end we are shown that human nature’s ability to transcend (even if it might not) the cold hostile barriers erected by bureaucracy prevails. Is this too simple, too expected? It is not soppy sentimentalism even if it is partisan and our terms of engagement, initially, rely on hard facts, not anecdotal evidence.What we are seeing is an attempt by two characters to outgrow their cultural upbringing.
Anders Lustgarten is a great writer- sparse and to the point. In contrast, Steven Atkinson’s and Lucy Osborne’s minimal staging hides some nice metaphors. Both Louise Mai Newberry and Ferdy Roberts, the real and the mythic, give us honest matter of fact performances. And we need Stefano’s profundity as well as we need Denise’s realness. They make sense of the other. Without Denise, Stefano’s story would be dangerously romantic, creeping into our myth ideologies. Without Stefano, we would hear the grass grow around Denise.
The last words are, of this review and of the play- ‘I defy you’- ‘not to feel hope.’