Empathy is an important word in theatre. Compassion and human connection are at the forefront of what makes good theatre work, and my own starting point for any piece of theatre I may work on is ‘what does it make me feel?’ This was definitely the driving factor behind my decision to stage Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo at the Arcola this July.
In September of 2015, the world erupted in empathy when photos were published of the death of three-year-old refugee, Aylan Kurdi. It was one of the most powerful and profound group reactions to an event as everyone came together to donate, volunteer and apply pressure on their governments as the reality of one of the biggest humanitarian crises in living memory was hitting home.
Tess, who runs Calais Action and does a lot of work at ground level in aid for refugees, received almost twenty times the support she was used to receiving as the house we live in together was avalanched in donations. The response was heart-warming, galvanising and encouraging, although, despite such empathy, we still don’t really know what it’s like to walk in their shoes.
“The aim was to mirror moment by moment the whole of an 80-minute journey that a refugee would have to go through in order to find safety, in the same illegal and secret conditions almost all have to travel in”
This led me to really push to find a producer for Cargo, a play Tess had sent me recently for my opinion. A story about a group of refugees travelling in a cargo container, it was set in real time and the aim was to mirror moment by moment the whole of an 80-minute journey that a refugee would have to go through in order to find safety, in the same illegal and secret conditions almost all have to travel in.
It was a devastating and, in truth, gripping read, based on her work with refugees, and I wanted to find a way to bring it to life. After Metal Rabbit and the Arcola agreed to stage the piece, I then spent some time working with designer Max Dorey on how we could give the audience the most immediate experience of being in that container with them. I am both satisfied and excited by the concept we have come up with.
Of course, at this point few of us know what is like to have to travel in dangerous conditions out of desperation for the safety of ourselves or our family, but Cargo is the closest I have seen to understanding that experience, and Tess’ work loading cargo containers full of aid and encounters with unaccompanied minors on the ground in Calais has informed her understanding, all of which I feel comes out clearly in the play.
I want to engage people’s empathy again; I want them to care for the characters in as an immediate way as possible. And I wanted to do it now. Theatre should always be responding to world events as swiftly as possible, and right now, there is no world event more important.