Blue Elephant Theatre, London
How can we, as individuals lucky enough to have been born into a country not torn apart by war, ever truly understand the refugee experience? The answer is that we can’t, of course – but plays like Daniel Keene’s Boxman take us one step closer, not only to understanding but to appreciating that for so many refugees, making it to the “safety” of the UK is far from the end of the story.
Such is the case for Ringo, the young man who shares his story in Flugelman Productions’ London premiere of Boxman. He’s made it out of Sierra Leone and all the way to Britain, but we learn little about his journey. Instead, we find him living on the streets, in a home he’s built himself out of an old suitcase and some cardboard boxes. Now he passes each day with only a few assorted possessions and his memories to keep him company. “I’ve lived so many lives,” he tells us repeatedly, as he reminisces about life as a child soldier, or recalls the loss of his family to an uncertain fate.
But despite his obvious trauma, Ringo’s a survivor, with an extraordinary determination to make the best of a situation that would break most of his audience. (At one point he asks us all to think of the thing that hurts us the most, a powerful challenge that reminds us yet again how lucky we are.) Again and again, we see him physically shake off the horror as he breaks into a broad grin and a cheerful laugh, both of which are so infectious we can’t help but join him even as our hearts are breaking for all he’s been through.
It’s clear from both the show itself and the short Q&A that followed on opening night that the team behind Boxman, and in particular director Edwina Strobl and actor Reice Weathers, take their responsibility to Ringo’s story very seriously. The show is produced in partnership with The Refugee Council, Refugee Action and Young Roots, and is informed by conversations with real refugees.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that everything about Weathers’ performance rings completely true, whether he’s telling knock-knock jokes to the front row or remembering the moment his father was torn from his arms by soldiers. Like Ringo, he has only his few meagre possessions on stage with him, but he brings Keene’s words to life so evocatively that we can clearly picture both his surroundings and the small figure who haunts the corners of the stage, occasionally drawing nearer to hear stories of their shared childhood.
Common sense tells us that the first step to empathising with displaced people who’ve been forced to flee their homes is to stop viewing them as headline statistics and start seeing their humanity. In Boxman, Daniel Keene gives us an insight into one man’s inner monologue, and a stark reminder of the ongoing trauma he and millions of others are still living through every day – even if they’ve “made it” to their destination. Beautifully performed by Reice Weathers, it’s essential viewing and a powerful counterpoint to the anti-refugee rhetoric to which we’re so frequently and depressingly exposed.
Boxman is at the Blue Elephant Theatre until 6th July, and at the Ventnor Fringe, Isle of Wight on 12th August.
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