Writer: Sonja Ferdinand
Director: Sofi Orem Skoglund
There are two unforgettable images at either end of Sonja Ferdinand’s swiftly paced radio play. One is the perimeter fence of an African airport; the other is a sunny suburban garden, complete with dahlia beds. They illustrate starkly the different experiences of desperate migrants, and of us, the fortunate ones who can listen to podcasts. As we later learn, it’s hard to charge your device when you’re on the run.
The Dream Machine is a double-stranded story, told by two voices, intricately woven by director Sofi Orem Skoglund. In one strand, where the suburban garden ought to be, a plane takes off and lands in accordance with the usual schedule. A young passenger binges on superhero movies. The airline is not a budget one: the PA voices are smooth as satin and soft as velvet, being those of actors Josephine Starte and Laura Hanna.
In the other story, nothing goes to plan.
Economically told in a few episodes, the play makes a powerful impression. The neutral voices seem to narrate without judgement. As Orem Skoglund says, ‘they have no agency’. The effect may be different in the original Danish, but in English the elegant RP tones uncomfortably highlight the sense of entitlement enjoyed by most people in rich developed countries.
One small cavil: Ferdinand takes liberties with airline regulations. The macho pilots of the luxurious ‘Dreamliner’ who fly into Addis Ababa seem to be the same ones who land at Heathrow a few hours later. More seriously, some may question how Ferdinand, a Danish woman, can presume to know how an African boy thinks, although ‘crying is not really something real men do’ seems a fairly safe bet. She is justified, however, because this is not a play about individuals – no one has a name. It’s about the prevailing attitude of complacency.
This gets shaken by the after-show interview with Ferdinand’s chosen guest speaker, Jwan Osman, who recounts the harrowing overland journey he made from Syria to Denmark as a fifteen-year-old. The subject of migration is urgent, and this is not the first time it has been addressed dramatically.
When asked, Osman says he has ever seen his experience represented in art. Having spent five years dealing with immigration procedures, learning three languages and studying for an engineering degree, he may not have had much time for international theatre. Otherwise, he might have come across projects such as Queens of Syria, The Jungle and Estelle Savasta’s Going Through – none of which have yet persuaded any government to implement his simple solution: ‘Open the borders.’
He recounts one act of kindness. The audience laughs, and listeners probably will too. Then they will think how fabulously lucky they are to be amused that the only heart-warming moment in his story takes place in a branch of McDonald’s.