Photo: Jo Irvine
From the infamous ‘go home’ vans this summer to spot-checks at train stations, few in the UK could fail to notice the Home Office’s divisive crackdown on what it terms ‘immigration offences’. As Rachel De-lahay’s Routes opens at the Royal Court, ‘a new play about immigration and exile, and what happens when people fall through the cracks’, I wonder whether it’s a response to the government’s recent ratcheting up of tactics. ‘Absolutely not,’ she tells me in the theatre bar between rehearsals. ‘I started writing the play at the beginning of 2012! It was something I wanted to write about and I could sense it was closing down, so I was getting a bit – I guess passionate is kind of a naff word, but a bit passionate about it.’
This kind of understatement is typical of De-lahay during our half-hour chat – she exudes a captivating sense of humour that’s often laced with self-deprecation. ‘I have this thing of treating the audience as if they’re more intelligent than you are’, the 29 year-old says at one point, ‘because nine times out of ten they will be, and that’s not very difficult in my case’. Beneath this though, it’s clear that there’s a fiercely driven writer at work, one who’s fascinated by people – refreshingly direct, she asks me almost as many questions as I ask her; between discussions about universities, stand-up comedy and the quickest way to get to Paris, I steer our conversation back to Routes.
With a drama so rooted in contemporary laws and circumstances, De-lahay wrote with her ‘head in the paper the whole time’ to keep up as events unfolded. Part of the play, for example, hinges on the ban on flights from London to Mogadishu, Somalia – ‘at the time I started writing no one flew there, then in April last year I opened the paper and it said Sweden were now flying planes to Mogadishu. I was like, “Oh its happening: slowly my play’s becoming more and more irrelevant.” But it didn’t happen – that’s how intense it’s been since then.’
A six-hander, Routes plots the intersecting narratives of a group of characters ‘having a problem with asylum in this country’, exploring ideas of citizenship and belonging. ‘I didn’t want to make it really black and white’, De-lahay explains, ‘I wanted there to be muddy areas.’ This involves challenging her audience’s sympathies and expectations; ‘it’s easy to say someone who doesn’t have citizenship shouldn’t be here, but what if they’ve had it and it’s been taken away due to extreme circumstances? Then we’re not looking at immigration policy, we’re looking at redemption and our attitudes towards that.’
Is theatre an effective tool for altering public attitudes on immigration? ‘I think it can get people talking’, De-lahay says, ‘and that can only be a good thing.’ As for Routes, ‘it’s OK that for some people this could be their entire education on the subject. You might know broad brushstrokes, but this is looking at a very specific area, and it’s OK that you might not be completely au fait with that.’
For a writer whose plays are intended to pack a political punch – her debut piece The Westbridge, developed with the Royal Court Unheard Voices programme, explored relations between black and Asian communities on a Battersea estate – De-lahay is reluctant to be pigeon-holed as a ‘political’ playwright. ‘Obviously everything I write about is political, but then really everything is political’, she speculates. Besides, I suggest, drama is an inherently political form. God, that sounds wanky. ‘Exactly, writing your story and putting it out there is a political – oh, but that’s wanky as well. At the same time though, if you really want to change something, writing a bit of art that takes so long to be produced and put on is the opposite of being proactive! If you want to do something, just get off your arse and do it. I don’t know – it’s not like I’m there at a rally, beating a drum at the front line of something.’
This underplaying of her own influence could stem from coming to playwriting almost by accident; De-lahay originally trained as an actor, and applied for Unheard Voices as something to ‘keep me ticking over between auditions. I got quite excited about having creative control and being able to progress in my own time; it’s a solitary and intimate thing to do whereas acting is very much a collaboration. You have to go and audition, you’re already exposing your work to someone else and then you have to be accepted as part of the group.’ That said, the ‘invaluable’ benefit of joining the programme, she says, was gaining a network of other young writers – both for emotional support and to lend an ‘external eye’ to each others’ work.
De-lahay herself has an impressive number of works under her belt, with writing credits in theatre and radio, and an upcoming project for Film4. Which is her favourite medium? ‘Theatre and film feel easier because there’s no time-bracket; with the radio it really did have to be 44 minutes. But then you really want to write for telly because everyone watches it.’ Plus, I suggest, a Radio 4 drama or even a theatre play will likely draw a different crowd to a cinema or a TV show. ‘I’m lucky,’ she reflects, ‘because the Royal Court gets quite a young, wanting-to-go-to-theatre audience, especially the Theatre Upstairs. But it’s still only got about 90 seats. And theatre’s expensive, you can’t help but understand that.’
It’s increasingly expensive to produce as well as watch. As a writer, is she conscious of theatres taking fewer risks with challenging work in the face of funding cuts? ‘I can’t let that effect me. I could write a one-woman play, but someone else is going to write a better one-woman play if they actually wanted to do it.’
Her confidence that ‘writing the story you want to write will excite the person reading’ has certainly served De-lahay well so far, with a palpable buzz surrounding her work commissioned at the Royal Court and a series of further engagements this year. Longer-term, she’s setting her sights on new forms; ‘I’m writing a musical! Not like Wicked or Guys and Dolls, but a modern story and a different way of transferring emotions, reaching a different audience again. No one’s going to want to produce it, it’s going to be so expensive, but if I get it right someone might go, “Oh it might be worth it.”’ I can’t wait to see it.
Rachel De-lahay’s Routes is on at the Royal Court until 12th October 2013.