Site specific theatre hasn’t been easy over the last 18 months – in fact you can take out the first two words of that statement. It’s been tricky enough getting regular venues open, let alone some of the more esoteric settings which were used before you know what kicked off. A production that it would probably be almost impossible to revive now is Clare Bayley’s The Container which happened at the Young Vic in 2009.
Set in an actual shipping container near to the theatre it allowed for just 28 audience members each time crammed onto uncomfortable benches around the perimeter with a narrow central strip for the 6 performers to use. Thirty-four bodies in close proximity packed into a metal box with no sense of social distancing and not a mask to be seen; even Covid deniers might baulk.
And yet these are the replicated conditions in which asylum seekers found and probably still find themselves and which forms the basis of this claustrophobic (even on film) drama which lifts the lid on desperation and exploitation, and which has suddenly gained new resonance in the last few weeks with events in Afghanistan.
Indeed, two of the characters are from there, Mariam (Amber Agar) and Ahmed (Hassani Shapi). He has money and a misplaced sense of entitlement; she has a gun. Travelling with them are “mother” Fatima (Doreene Blackstock) and teenage “daughter” Asha (Mercy Ojelade) from Somalia and Kurdish Turk Jemal (Abhin Galeya). Each has their own reason for wishing to get to Britain. If they have a somewhat rosy view of how life would be better from the persecution, war and deprivation from which they are fleeing, this is understandable.
Nevertheless, they have already spent days locked in their mobile prison and tensions are running high. And then the agent (Chris Spyridos) who has been organising their passage appears and demands more money from them. Some do not have the money or are unprepared to forfeit any more. Mariam is told she must find “another way to pay”; Asha, with whom she has forged a quick bond, is distraught but neither of the young women have a real choice.
The acting is totally believable with strong characterisations coming from all six players but especially Galeya and Ojelade – there’s no way she can have been faking the tears which flow. Director Tom Wright ratchets up the tension to unbearable levels with Adrienne Quartly’s sound design providing the occasional jarring shock from “outside” and presumably there was further “enhancement” from the no doubt stifling atmosphere. The lighting all comes from handheld torches with some being wielded by audience members and this creates a thoroughly authentic and shadow filled experience; there are also sections set in complete darkness.
It’s an intense and bruising piece of high stakes drama and is, of course, meant to be – even more so I would guess for the 28 silent onlookers with events being played out just centimetres in front of them. Given the context it must have been quite difficult to refrain from intervening and I would imagine that after just an hour the audience would have been wrung out but perhaps a bit more empathetic towards those that find themselves forced into such a nightmare scenario for real. Given current events this Amnesty International backed production is well worth watching; just don’t expect your journey to be a comfortable one.