Touring – reviewed at the High Tide Festival, Walthamstow
Written as a response to their previous play Tanja, which explored life in immigration detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, Stand and Be Counted Theatre’s latest show Where We Began looks at a cross-section of people who have – or will – fall foul of the government’s current immigration policies. Playing fictional versions of ‘themselves’, the actors show how an escalation of draconian measures would apply to them.
Set in the near future, the world of Where We Began has very strict protocol regarding “smooth integration” into society. First point of contact is Shireen (Shireen Farkhoy) who is in many ways an ambassador for the status quo. While possessing a distinct Yorkshire accent, by her own admission she’s a ‘first generation’ Briton – the first in her family to be born in the UK and have ‘legal residence’. Of course, where her family is now is another question…
Tafadzwa Muchenje was born in Zimbabwe, but spent his very early years in South Africa, before his family moved to Britain. But under the new regime, there’s a ‘biblical’ mandate for people having to go back to the place of their birth for registration. Muchenje faces the prospect of having to go back to Zimbabwe – a country devoid of personal and cultural ties to him. Not able to speak the language, living there would alienate him and sever all ties to his present life.
If Muchenje’s situation seems absurd, Rosie MacPherson’s situation highlights how much people move home within a 10-year period. Originally from Ireland, MacPherson (who also wrote the show) has spent much of her adult life living in different parts of London and the UK. To hear her recite all the addresses she’s lived at, you’ll realise that each place was significant to her at one point in her life and that to label someone by the place where they’re born is reductive.
In the case of Fernanda Mandagara, a Brazilian theatremaker, the thorny issues of ‘origins’ are further explored when we consider that the current Brazilian state has Portuguese as its official language, though 500+ years ago that wasn’t always the case. Then there’s Zoe Katsilerou from Greece, the birthplace and ‘home’ of theatre and democracy… All the events the ‘characters’ mention are based on personal experiences.
The set by Hannah Sibai with its ‘institutional’ white tiles reminds me of what was used for Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places and Things, where people in the rehab clinic are scrutinised… judged. For their induction, the ambience the visitors face is less-than-welcoming.
But as awkward as these circumstances are for the characters, it’s the separation from their family that cuts the deepest and history is replete with such examples. People in east and west Germany were kept apart for 28 years and in recent months, people from North and South Korea have only just been allowed to visit each other. That’s a period of 60 years being kept apart… In the case of ‘MacPherson’, a ‘mix-up’ has led to her being kept apart from her sister. There is one person who might be able to help, someone in authority who is allegedly sympathetic to cases like hers – Shireen. But can she help without ‘outing’ herself..?
Under Hannah Butterfield’s direction, a balance is struck between the exposition of the characters and driving the narrative forward. While much of what’s said is spoken to the audience, there’s a degree of interaction too, building a rapport and conveying the people on stage are individuals not statistics.
In terms of the show’s poignancy, it’s so ‘on the nose’ the events that transpire feel like an organic development of what’s happening globally. Between the ‘barriers’ of the Trump administration, the British ‘administrative error’ regarding the Windrush Generaton and the reticence of the Brazilian authorities to accept refugees following Venezuela’s economic collapse, there’s a widespread ‘kneejerk’ attitude to putting up barriers and reneging on invitations to stay.
If things continue as they are, everywhere will be like the fictional Royston Vasey in The League of Gentlemen in keeping their locality… “for local people…”