The world around us is harsh and confusing. Fake news. The refugee crisis. The alt right. Echo chambers. Alternative facts. Angry voices. Unheard voices. Emojis. Borderland and Calais are two verbatim-ish performances that attempt to plot a coherent path through this complex tangle of competing truths and dubious information. Presented together in a pared-down double-bill by Crew For Calais, a creative company focussed on helping refugees, they make for a sobering experience. It’s not enjoyable theatre, by any stretch of the imagination, but it is important theatre, theatre from the front lines.
Prasanna Puwanarajah and Stephanie Street’s Borderland is the shorter of the two, drawing on statistics, verbatim accounts, and excerpts from the UN Declaration of Human Rights to present an unbiased, apolitical portrait of the refugee crisis. Delivered by two guest performers – writers Puwanarajah and Street on the night I saw it – reading off music stands and interacting affably with the audience, it is simple, straightforward and slyly emotive, presenting stories of unimaginable horror and inspiring bravery in an unaffected style that belies their significance.
Maddy Costa’s Calais is a slightly different beast: a stream of tweets and posts from October 2016, knitted together to form a multi-layered narrative of the French government’s destruction of the Calais Jungle. Again delivered by a guest performer – Yusra Warsama on my night – who has not seen the material prior to the performance, it has the same rough-and-readiness of Borderland, but also incorporates a degree of immediacy.
Evoking the febrile confusion of life in a refugee camp with arresting efficiency, Calais is more obviously impassioned than its prequel, venting palpable rage at Amber Rudd and the French and British Authorities for a glaring lack of moral fibre and leadership. But it’s also too long, testing both the audience’s patience and the format’s ability to reach beyond itself. And it relies heavily on the spontaneous genius of the guest performer. Get someone who reads aloud without vitality, and you’re in for a potentially tedious 45 minutes.
Borderland and Calais ultimately hit the wall most verbatim theatre hits: there’s only so much emotional leverage that can be conjured up purely through creative editing, there’s only so far a true, unaltered story can go. Both pieces escape scrutiny due to the urgency of their subject matter, but it still feels like there’s room for theatre to go further in its response to the refugee crisis.
Borderland/Calais was performed at Vault festival 2017. Click here for more details.