DramaNorth WestReviewSite-Specific

Be//Longing – Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester

Writer: Rebekah Harrison et al

Director: Matt Hassall and Take Back Theatre

Reviewer: Lizz Clark

Headlines refer to “swarms” of immigrants and political campaigns focus on “taking back control” of Britain and its borders. Migration is a pressing issue of our time, but how often do we hear the real stories of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers? In partnership with The University of Manchester’s Migration Lab, Take Back Theatre have produced Be//Longing. It’s a multimedia experience that fills the Hope Mill Theatre with artistic responses to the refugee crisis and the phenomenon of migration.

We enter by crossing a border. Payphones play short monologues about being racially profiled, sending money home to family, and marriage across borders. The post-industrial bareness of Hope Mill is a perfect environment to take in stark photographs of Rohingya refugees, and the jumble of crates and sacking that holds Matilda Glen’s response to the Calais jungle.

Unfortunately, the central performance piece feels half-hearted, the script needing more ingenuity and spark to bring its ideas to life. Perhaps writer Rebekah Harrison is afraid to show the true bleakness of the refugee experience: the actors, Nadia Emam and Darren Kuppan, mostly talk in the third person about characters so disembodied that they’re referred to only as A, B, C, and so on. Thankfully the pair are both engaging performers, and the few scenes that allow them to connect with true emotional depth are excellent.

There are also films on the theme of borders: the best one sees the extraordinary Yandass Ndlovu dance across chalk lines in defiance of xenophobic rhetoric playing over her. Then, more thought-provoking art, including interactive suitcases that spill out toiletries and clothes, an amazing soundscape world map by Sophie Mahon, and Under Canvas, which takes the form of a talking tent.

This is Take Back’s installation about childbirth in refugee camps, which is sadly unsuited to the environment it’s in here. People crowd the tent, but only two at a time can sit inside, and the recording it plays is 30 minutes long. Those numbers just don’t add up. It’s especially unfortunate given the intimate subject matter: we should be huddled inside, listening thoughtfully, not jostling for space while the speakers compete with background noise.

Amid the artistic responses are pieces more firmly rooted in reality, like the stand holding Not The Fake News – a collaboration between journalists and refugees to dispel media myths – and an exhibit detailing the horrific stories of Syrian political prisoners. The intermingling of art and research works, engaging both minds and hearts to reaffirm the humanity of migrants of all kinds. The multimedia, multi-pronged approach works too: maybe some parts are weak, but others are surprising, inspiring and moving. It’s innovative and exciting to mix art, academia and theatre – but the theatrical part sadly lacked impact.

Runs until Saturday 4th November | Image: Contributed


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