Director: Steven Atkinson
Reviewer: Glen Pearce
The shore at Aldeburgh is no stranger to art and drama. Maggi Hambling’s Scallop and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes all using the wave-lapped shingle beach as inspiration.
That backdrop also provides a surprisingly effective setting for the HighTide transfer of Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa. This HighTide staging takes place in a geodesic dome on the foreshore, the wind rattling the canvas, the sound of seagulls and waves adding an unexpected, yet fitting, soundscape to this moving and pertinent play.
One has to remember that Lustgarten wrote Lampedusa before the current media and public interest in the migration crisis in the Mediterranean. It’s clearly an issue that has been going on for some time but the current raising of the public consciousness gives this staging an added urgency and poignancy.
Lustgarten interweaves two streams of monologues, initially unconnected, to devastating effect.
There’s Stefano, a former fisherman from the Mediterranean Island that gives the play its name. Technically he still fishes but his catch now is hauling the drowned bodies of refugees and migrants that cross the Mediterranean, seeking a new life. It’s a job that affects him deeply, the horror of pulling an endless stream of corpses from the blue waters one that, understandably, traumatises him deeply.
Contrasting with Stefano we have Denise, a worldly wise university student in Leeds who is funding her studies by working as a door to door debt collector for a payday loan company. She’s the hard face of the other side of the economic migration, adept at ensuring those on low incomes pay her company, regardless of the consequence. She though is as much on a journey as those crossing the Med, her life-changing as she struggles to come to terms with the dichotomies in her own life – being a woman in a man’s world, being half Chinese and Northern and fighting for her disabled mother’s right to benefits.
Lustgarten ladles his political message carefully. This could all so easily feel like a lecture but through his beautiful use of poetic language and heart-wrenching honesty we’re drawn into the darkness of both worlds. The strands unite so subtly that we’re unaware of the convergence until the final moments, this is no longer a play about migration, a play about benefits and debt collection, this becomes a broader lament for man’s inhumanity against fellow men in their time of need.
Steven Atkinson’s direction is pitched perfectly. The intimate setting of the tent, with the audience seated in the round on benches, evokes a feeling of community storytelling, around the campfire sharing of aural history. With frequent direct address to the audience and often uncomfortable direct intimate eye contact, it’s impossible not to feel complicit in the plight of both protagonists.
Seated among us, Louise Mai Newberry and Steven Elder deliver mesmerising performances, within seconds of them speaking we feel we’ve known them a lifetime. The impact on both is palpable, the emotional impact of loss haunting both. Elder’s darkly poetic telling of a doomed night-time rescue effort, told with nothing more than a single lamp and a swinging toy boat, is hauntingly disturbing while Newberry’s recollections of the futility of dealing with faceless bureaucrats hits many a chord.
In just over an hour the pair, through Lustgarten’s evocative writing, take us into the darkest recess of the human mind and, while we may feel anger at their plight and pain at their suffering there’s also hope here – a sense that in opening these painful reflections action can be taken to make the world a better place. It’s not some rose-tinted, Disneyfied happy ending but the power of the piece to give a voice to those who have lost their voice is a true testament to the power of theatre.
Runs at HighTide until 19 September, then transfers to The Unity Theatre, Liverpool 24 September | Photo Nobby Clark
Related article: Anders Lustgarten on Lampedusa and political writing