The Edinburgh Fringe shows taking human trafficking as a theme

This article is from 2010

The Edinburgh Fringe shows taking human trafficking as a theme


Roadkill and Lost Boy amongst Fringe shows telling refugees' stories

It is the world’s fastest growing criminal enterprise and the hottest topic on the Fringe. Why, wonders Mark Fisher, is everyone talking about human trafficking?

A celebrity endorsement works wonders for your box office and all power to Shatterbox for getting Emma Thompson to put her name to its production of Fair Trade. But that show is only the most high profile in an unprecedented wave of Fringe productions dealing with the subject of human trafficking.

The theme is so prevalent, it has even spilled over into the comedy programme. Irish stand-up Keith Farnon has previously taken on the American death penalty in Cruel and Unusual and racism in No Blacks. No Jews. No Dogs. No Irish. All Welcome … Now he is discussing the ‘value of women in society’ in Sex Traffic – How Much is that Woman in the Window? which promises to see the funny side of the connection between trafficking and society’s commodification of women.

From Cora Bissett, a leading light on the Scottish stage, Roadkill is an attempt to remind us how commonplace trafficking has become. By staging her play in an ordinary apartment to an audience of 12, she makes the point that a phenomenon that seems so alien could be taking pace in the flat next door. ‘It’s not screaming out like a brothel, with a light outside, it could be happening on anybody’s street, on your street, and you wouldn’t know,’ she told The List in June.

As well as the trade in women for sex, there is a lucrative market in trafficked children. That is an issue picked up by two youth theatres on the Fringe. In All the Queen’s Children, the socially motivated Nothing to Declare company, working in association with Reading Youth Theatre, considers the movement of young people in all directions around the world. On the one hand are the child refugees, making perilous journeys into the UK before disappearing from care homes; on the other hand are the naïve gap-year students who find themselves groomed by traffickers abroad.

Meanwhile in Lost Boy (formerly Tunde), students at Park View Academy in north London tell the story of former pupil Tunde Jaji who, as a child, was taken from his home in Nigeria and made to work as a domestic servant for a woman in Harringay. Now 24 and a gifted animator, Jaji has lived to tell the tale, but only after years of trauma. You don’t need to guess why, under ‘political views’ on his Facebook page, he has written: ‘be as free as the clouds’.

So how to explain the upsurge in trafficking plays? Like the trade itself, it is related to our increasing ability to travel great distances and our awareness of inequalities of wealth, particularly since the collapse of the USSR. Playwrights cannot ignore the world’s fastest growing criminal industry, one that, according to a 2004 United Nations report, generates between $5b and $9b a year.

That is a theme picked up by California’s Belleherst Productions in See Me! Hear Me! The multimedia play is about a fictional economics professor who sets out to write a book about global capitalism only to realise one of the prime generators of wealth is human slavery. The story ventures to Poland, Berlin, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Dubai, Uganda, Haiti and New York in its attempt to make sense of an industry that claims 27m victims worldwide.

Another reason the issue has come into focus are the news reports about the proliferation of prostitution during international sporting events. ‘In 2012 the Olympics are coming over here and a lot of people are getting very worried about how much sex trafficking is going to increase in this country,’ says Anna Holbek, co-writer of Fair Trade, which is based on the stories of Elena and Samai, two women trafficked into Britain. ‘Stats show that around the area of the Olympic arena, prostitution generally – and most likely trafficked women – has increased two-fold since last year. In South Africa they had a huge surge in trafficking in connection with people coming over for the World Cup. That’s expected to happen in the UK as well. For us, it’s trying to use theatre to raise awareness of that.’

Using a lively mix of theatre techniques – both comic and serious – Fair Trade avoids hectoring the audience even as it raises awareness of a distressing issue. ‘Emma Thompson came to the Q&A session on the first night and she asked for a show of hands from people who felt they had learnt a new piece of information,’ says Holbek. ‘It was unanimous. The whole room came up with different things they were just shocked about.’

Zoe Mavroudi, echoing the theme of Keith Farnon’s stand-up show, argues that trafficking is related to attitudes towards women in general. Her play Beauty is Prison Time takes a wry – even farcical – look at the annual beauty contest in UF-91/9, a real-life Siberian female prison, and makes the connection between such pageants and a world that trades in women’s looks.

‘There’s a tremendous irony, of course, in the premise of a beauty pageant in a prison, but also in the way Russia, of all the source countries of trafficking and prostitution, used to be an empire very recently,’ says the New York actor and writer. ‘The system collapses and the women start going away to their former enemies to work as strippers or whatever else. It’s a sign that whole countries can use their women as a natural resource.

‘The prison beauty contest was a good setting for a theme about how women historically have been seen as available for sale because they are desirable. I’m not comparing myself with women who are going through these things, but it is true of all women, in our own lives and the way we are portrayed in the media, that beauty is a form of imprisonment. If a woman is beautiful she can be owned. That mentality fuels the more legitimate aspects of the entertainment industry and also the porn industry and the sex trade. I do think there is a connection between all of these things and my play does walk that contentious line.’

All the Queen’s Children, C Aquila, 0845 260 1234, 7–14 Aug, 4.50pm, £8.50–£9.50 (£7.50–£8.50)

Beauty is Prison Time, theSpaces @ Surgeons’ Hall, 0845 508 8515, 6–29 Aug (not 9, 16, 23), 12.55pm, £7 (£5)

Emma Thompson Presents: Fair Trade, Pleasance Dome, 556 6550, 7–30 Aug (not 16, 23), 3.30pm, £9–£10 (£7.50–£9). Previews until 6 Aug, £6

Keith Farnon: Sex Traffic – How Much is that Woman in the Window?, Underbelly, 08445 458 252, 7–29 Aug (not 17), 6.20pm, £9–£10.50 (£8–£9.50). Previews 5 & 6 Aug, £6

Lost Boy, theSpace @ Venue 45, 0845 508 8387, 6–14 Aug (not 7, 8), 7.10pm, £5

Roadkill, Traverse, 228 1404, 11–29 Aug (not 9, 16, 23), times vary, £17-£19 (£12–£13). Previews 7 & 8, 10 Aug, £12 (£6)

See Me! Hear Me!, Quaker Meeting House, 220 6109, 16–28 Aug (not 22), times vary, £8 (£6.50).

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