This peculiar comedy on the refugee crisis had audience members unpredictably on their feet during both the scheduled opening and the close. Borderline‘s delayed start, which left a long trail of theatre-goers queuing for up to half an hour outside The Cockpit theatre with no eventual apology, did not foreshadow the ultimate standing ovation, but it happened nonetheless.
Borderline was pitched as ‘a comedy about a tragedy’, with the bulk of the action set in the so-called Jungle. The project built on PSYCHEdelight’s workshops in Calais where refugees sought humour. The theatre company saw comedy as a mode for raising violent issues: “An easier way, we think, for an audience to take in the painful fate of the refugees in Calais and all over the world.”
Yet I wasn’t one of those applauding quite so heartily. The fifty-minute show teemed with great intentions, but sorely lacked plot or character development. The vague, patchy narrative scarcely brushed the surface of any of the characters. This fragmentary approach seemed to reflect Western mainstream impressions of the crisis – hazy, largely faceless. The potential for comedically connecting with some of the refugee actors’ unique experiences was lost in a sweeping script that prompted not a whole lot more than a slightly off-key string of laughs. I walked away feeling I hadn’t particularly engaged with the painful fate of refugees through watching it.
The cast of refugees and Europeans (plus a Chilean actor, oddly bracketed within this label) give a charismatic, light-hearted performance which only rarely hinted at the real horrors endured, it is assumed, by some of the individuals onstage. The energy of the cast and Sophie NL Besse (the company’s founder), who twice took to the stage in cameos as the theatre’s ‘health and safety manager’ carrying out risk assessments, compensated somewhat for the storyline’s shortages – and the efforts to bring such a diverse group together to create this production are commendable. The challenge of quashing language barriers was met by two cast members translating into Arabic and Pashto for rehearsals, while the show itself interweaved various languages into the brief flits of dialogue.
The script, however, feels more like a draft of a work in progress. As someone who has travelled to the Calais camp twice since last autumn, I found myself smiling as I recognised several small details of PSYCHEdelight’s interpretation. “LINE LINE LINE” shouted the cast as they hastily formed a queue to collect food donations – a call that immediately took me back to the dusty site in Calais. Some intended jokes struck a harsher note. At one point a yell of “OHHH MYYY GODDD” rings out as an unaccompanied minor is found en route to safer countries. Another uncomfortable laugh was raised by a joke about a refugee being hit by a vehicle. The medical volunteer blithely asked, which it was this time: “Lorry? Car? Train?”
In contrast, the ‘fashion show’ of donated clothing made for an amusing scene where the cast paraded across the stage in an assortment of bizarre outfits. An hilarious moment also sprang from an apparently ad lib interaction with an audience member. A border control dog (played by Peter Pearson) jumped and barked at someone in the front row, to which the immigration officer (Gareth Watkins) said: “No, no, silly, he’s not a refugee” and tugged the dog away. After a second’s pause the audience member replied: “I am a refugee.” The immigration officer turned, hesitated, and said simply: “Well spotted,” patting the dog on the head.
While the show was undoubtedly an admirable attempt to give refugees a voice and explore a theme that does not lend itself to entertainment purposes, PSCHYEdelight’s highly ambitious aim to turn this tragic, ongoing crisis into a comedy felt as if it drowned out refugees’ voices to some extent. Anxieties aside, a huge wave of the audience stood to cheer the cast and director as the play wrapped up. I may not have been satisfied with the end result as a piece of theatre, but I can certainly get onboard with the project’s aspiration to unite for cultural exchange and integration. In the programme Besse writes, “Before anything Borderline was a human adventure, a wish I had to create a space where people would meet each other, share and create together.” In this, she succeeded wholeheartedly.
Borderline was on as part of The Cockpit’s Voila festival. Click here for more details.