Writer: Zodwa Nyoni
Director: Alex Chisholm
Composer: Jonathan Girling
Sound Design: Ed Clarke
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Nine Lives was originally commissioned by West Yorkshire Playhouse last year as part of the A Play, a Pint and a Pint programme. Now it is halfway through a fairly lengthy tour for Leeds Studio in association with the Playhouse. It still shows its informal origins in a bare-stage presentation, though there is nothing unsophisticated about the sound design, by Ed Clarke, with splendidly atmospheric music composed by Jonathan Girling, Kadaushe Matimba’s evocative marimba sound underlining the more poetic passages of the play.
Ishmael has fled Zimbabwe because he fears for his safety as a gay man. He seeks sanctuary in Britain and is dispersed to Leeds while his application is considered. Zodwa Nyoni is less concerned with the justification (or lack of it) for deporting possibly at-risk asylum seekers or with the general political and moral debate, than with entering into and sharing the asylum seeker’s experience.
So Ishmael starts at a run, fleeing his persecutors, then slows down to tell us about life in Burnstall Heights. Initially, he is all curiosity and wants to learn all about England. He checks Facebook on the computer in the internet cafe and tries to make contact with his former lover. This outward-looking phase ends with a humiliating mugging by the 15-year-old Ricky and his pit bull.
However, while Ricky mouths all the customary far-right claims about asylum seekers’ luxury, Nyoni cannily balances him with Bex, 19 years old with a four-year-old son and no partner, who offers prejudice-free friendship. What Ishmael suffers is not consistent cruelty, but confusion, uncertainty, with no sense of belonging. As the closing lines say, he is “hoping to call somewhere home again.” The quest for sanctuary is all.
Alex Chisholm directs Lladel Bryant in a performance refreshingly free from melodrama. He is an engaging protagonist, likeable, intelligent, and observant if always wondering where the next blow will come from. Bryant’s extended monologues as other characters – Bex, for instance, or Cyrus, the Iranian refugee fearful of deportation – are convincing and sharply characterised and he finds the humour in Ishmael’s observation of Leeds life or in the characters of the squabbling cafe owners.
Nyoni’s writing is assured, controlled and nicely varied, from the poetry of the recurrent “Some of us…” attempts to define identity to the sharp realism and occasional broad comedy of the Yorkshire characters.
Nine Lives is a moving, empathetic and occasionally amusing glimpse of the asylum seeker’s world, but at an hour’s running time it is a glimpse, no more. However, for the performance at CAST, an evening’s immersion in the refugee experience was available. Before the performance, the Sheffield Socialist Choir and Shosholoza, a choir made up of Zimbabwean asylum seekers, entertained in the foyer and at the end of the evening there was music from Mina Salawa, a refugee from Egypt living in Doncaster – a much better idea than the usual question and answer session.
Reviewed on 12 November 2015 | Image: Contributed