The undeniable power – and the frustratingly finite reach – of language is a favourite subject for writers, who can spend an inordinate amount of time trying to wrench the exact right words out of their thesauruses, and for whom the Microsoft Word Synonyms tool never seems to be enough. It’s a struggle that pales into insignificance in the face of the deeper problems unfolding around the world, such as an ongoing refugee crisis of unprecedented severity, and the incoherent and ineffectual responses the international community has proposed to confront it.
Yet the need to be understood, to be validated, is at the heart of The Claim, a powerful and provocative play which is by turns exasperating and furiously funny. The plot follows Congolese asylum seeker Serge as he attempts to justify – with the aid of an interpreter – his presence in the UK, his eloquence and charisma continually diffused by the vagaries of parallel translation and a necessarily dispassionate interview process.
Developed over almost three years of intensive research, this is writer Tim Cowbury’s first solo play, following several collaborations with partner Jess Latowicki (with whom he co-founded Made in China Theatre Company). Considering the sheer number of words which collide in the play’s tsunamis of cross-purposes verbiage, this is a remarkably tightly written piece, packed with echoes, callbacks, punning, and the systematic, laborious parsing out of meaning. Here, slight semantic differences can become an unbridgeable void, and a mistaken word can mean the difference between life and death.
Heading the cast, Ncuti Gatwa gives a commanding performance as Serge, as grippingly watchable when struggling to articulate his complex personal history as he is during the stretching, awkward silences which bookend the piece. Armed only with a lopsided smile and a bag of jelly snakes, he makes a warm and deeply relatable protagonist.
Beside him, Nick Blakeley provides some humour as a nameless interpreter, babbling nervously, struggling both with his job’s lingual demands and the implications of a failed claim. An icy Yusra Warsama, meanwhile, is all efficiency as the Home Office bureaucrat with the final say in the case, but allows just enough humanity to show through her implacable professional exterior.
Director Mark Maughan has everything timed with clockwork precision, ensuring his cast land every line with clarity, even as they ramble and talk across one another. Shared syllables set up puns, and half-heard terms trigger conversational tangents, creating a Babel of bewildering confusion which is nonetheless meaningful for the audience. Lewis Gibson’s sound design, though used infrequently, adds substantially to this mood, with heavy bass-note rumbles gradually increasing in the pauses between scenes until the escalating awkwardness and anxiousness feels almost unbearable.
The production has a sparse but striking design by Emma Bailey. A lonely office chair sits centre stage, encircled by six upright striplights, whose flickering halogen glare cuts through a muggy, honey-coloured glow which suffuses the space. At times, they pivot inwards to focus intently, pointedly, on Serge. At others, when that yellow light fades to black, they stand out like the bars of a cage.
Several times, Serge reminds us that the interview room – like a theatre – is ‘a place of pretence,’ but it is also a place where empathy can be cultivated, a place which can foster mutual understanding. Tense, dense, and troubling, The Claim movingly demonstrates the impossibility of separating the story from the teller, or human experience from mere statistics.
The Claim is on unit 26 January 2018 at Shoreditch Town Hall. Click here for more details.