As so often, at the end of last year Philomena Cunk – the brilliantly terrible (or perhaps terribly brilliant) creation of Charlie Brooker and Diane Morgan – spoke the horrifying truth about the media’s portrayal of the refugee crisis. “Now it looked kind of different,” she reflected on the media’s sudden about-turn, “less swarm-y and threatening and more harrowing and urgent and sad. And the clever thing was, it was the same sort of pictures you’d seen earlier, but now you knew the twist about them being humans it seemed totally different.”
Zodwa Nyoni’s monologue attempts to recover the humanity so often denied in tabloid news reports and bile-filled columns. Nine Lives is the story of just one refugee: Ishmael, fleeing homophobic violence in Zimbabwe. Now in the UK, he waits in a mouldy flat in Leeds – emphatically “not home” – his life on pause while he’s suspended in bureaucratic limbo. Everything hinges on a brown envelope on the doormat, a black and white “yes” or “no” to his asylum request. Stuck on the conveyor belt of the UK immigration system, Ishmael is no longer a person but a number, a statistic on a computer screen or the page of a newspaper.
Under a single, stark lightbulb – the bareness of the stage suggesting the bareness of his new life – Lladel Bryant’s restless, lonely Ishmael tells his story. He talks of metamorphosis, of refugees in “concrete cocoons”, and of a hostile, overwhelming city. This jagged day-to-day experience is also punctuated with almost poetic interludes that refer to the wider plight of refugees and asylum seekers. Each beginning “some of us”, they break apart the undifferentiated mass so often shown in the media, reasserting shared yet particular human experiences:
“Some of us were running”.
“Some of us couldn’t recognise ourselves anymore.”
“Some of us were alone.”
“Some of us were begging for a taste of your liberty.”
In keeping with Nyoni’s reclaiming of these stories, the primary focus of Alex Chisholm’s production is the narrative. Aside from the lightbulb, all that joins Bryant on stage is a large, battered suitcase, which has to be both home and past for Ishmael in this temporary new existence. It’s a simple staging that could be even simpler still. Occasional, exaggerated sound effects – the nightmarish ticking of a clock, for instance – hardly seem necessary to communicate what straightforward storytelling does so clearly and compassionately. It’s through being stripped back where headlines are embellished that Nine Lives gains its power.
Implicit throughout, lingering like a bad aftertaste, is the vitriolic media narrative around immigration. Words like “swarm” and “droves” are never used, but they can’t help but haunt Ishmael’s experiences. When he’s targeted in the street, it’s with accusations right out of The Sun or the Daily Mail: he’s seen as a scrounger, an alien, a leech. To his landlady, he’s a source of cash and irritation; to the aggressive teenager who confronts him outside his flat, he’s a convenient figure of blame.
No one talks about the loneliness. Absent from all the news reports is the yawning emptiness of arriving on a foreign shore without family, friends or lovers. While lacking depth and background in some areas, what pierces through both Nyoni’s writing and Bryant’s performance is the terrible enforced solitude and isolation experienced by refugees like Ishmael. Pacing the empty stage and impressively inhabiting the voices of a range of other characters, Bryant can appear at times like a man frantically fighting to fill the void of his loneliness.
At a slender 55 minutes, there are limits to what Nine Lives can achieve. There are few resolutions, either for endlessly waiting Ishmael or for the wider issues that the piece touches on. But as a simple, unadorned plea for common humanity, it’s still depressingly necessary. In one of the play’s tenderest moments, teenage mother Bex – herself discarded and mistreated – reaches out a hand to Ishmael, recognising him for who he is and extending the offer of friendship. It’s an act that, on a much larger scale, Nine Lives implicitly appeals for.