A look at the productions that aim to tell personal stories of migration, beyond the headlines
Although the refugee crisis may have slipped from TV screens and rolling news coverage in recent months, the movement of people between countries is still a major theme within the Fringe, with a number of companies shining a spotlight on marginalised voices affected by migration.
Matthew Zajac returns to Summerhall with The Sky is Safe, Dogstar Theatre's fifth Fringe production and a personal response to the unfolding Syrian tragedy. In 2012, Zajac spent nine days trapped in bureaucratic limbo in Istanbul, as his visa for travel to Iran was cancelled following a diplomatic crisis. Instead of travelling to take the lead role in a film, he found himself writing about chance encounters on Istanbul's streets.
Earlier this year he returned to Istanbul to interview Syrian women, which became central to the creation of this new play, directed by Ben Harrison. 'Amal, the female character in The Sky Is Safe comes from these interviews,' he says. 'She is essentially an everywoman, a composite character who embodies aspects of the female experience of the Syrian war.' The engagement with migration goes beyond the story and into the production team: set designer Nihad Al Turk, a highly respected Syrian visual artist, came with his family to Scotland from a refugee camp in Lebanon.
Writer Henry C Krempels was also inspired by a chance encounter. In 2015, Krempels was commissioned by VICE Magazine to write about the train journey from Milan to Paris which was being used by refugees coming up through the south of Italy. The Sleeper: Or What Happens When You Ask Them To Leave weaves together an unusual story with real testimony from Syrian refugees.
During one of the dozen or so train journeys he made over the course of about a year, he returned from the restaurant car to find someone asleep in his bed. 'I lay in the warm bed [afterwards] and thought about who she might have been and what I might have done about that', says Krempels. 'These two questions have obsessed me since then – I've even tried to find her – and the play is for her'. The Sleeper describes a situation familiar to the thousands of refugees who find themselves stuck in the liminal space between the homes they have left behind, and the new lives they are yet to begin.
Playwright Cathy SK Lam is also keen to put real human experiences of migration centre stage. Smoking with Grandma presented by ThreeWoods, is a new multimedia play that seeks to explore the lives lived behind the term 'refugee'. Lam's work, which has received critical acclaim from both Hong Kong and Adelaide Fringe Festivals in 2017, tells the story of refugees who lived on Tiu Keng Leng, a remote island in Hong Kong, after fleeing mainland China.
Lam is not looking to overload the audience with narrative, facts or figures, but rather would prefer to trigger interest. 'It all depends on themselves for the little changes they want to make or discussions they want to initiate after seeing the performance', she says. 'Making performance gives you a second chance to live the life again, our life or someone's life. You get to know the life that you are not familiar with'.
Quater Life Crisis Migration, however, is about more than border crossings. Yolanda Mercy's semi-autobiographical piece, Quarter Life Crisis, wrestles with the responsibilities and societal expectations of being a twentysomething. Yet she recognises an additional complexity: to reconcile her London upbringing with her Nigerian heritage.
Mercy hopes that her show will encourage audience members to feel curious about their own heritage. 'I am Nigerian, so audiences get to experience a bit of my culture, of Yoruban language, of my country's history and music, with a slight London twist,' says the actor and playwright. She hopes her audience will 'discover who they are, celebrate what makes them unique, and question what western society's notion of "growing up" means in 2017.' At the same time, Quarter Life Crisis demonstrates that migration has driven the multicultural energy that defines contemporary British culture.
Kamaal Hussain is also reflecting on his own personal experience, filtering his life-story through the tale of Sinbad's seven voyages in Becoming Scheherazade. In light of Middle Eastern wars and terror attacks, he was keen to respond to the representation of Arabs in western culture.
'I believe performance, especially live performance, offers an immediacy unparalleled elsewhere,' says the writer, who is also artistic director of The Thief of Baghdad theatre company. ' As an audience, being in front of a real person, who is honestly presenting their truth, is an incomparable means of engendering empathy.'
Theatre is more often in the business of posing questions than providing answers: these performances offer insights into the lives and circumstances of contemporary migrants and refugees, with an emphasis on the human costs and consequences. Whether invoking mythologies or adapting interviews with immigrants, and placing the stories within their political context, these shows reveal the emotions and experiences behind the headlines, even reflecting how cultural heritage extends into the next generation and enriches British society with its distinctive perspective. From this, migration becomes less of a crisis than a process that is capable of inspiring change.
The Sky is Safe, Summerhall, 4–27 Aug (not 14, 21), 7.45pm, £15 (£10). Preview 2 Aug, £8. The Sleeper, theSpace @ Jury's Inn , 7–26 Aug (not 13, 20), times and prices vary. Previews 4 & 5 Aug, 11.40am, £5 (£4). Smoking with Grandma, C royale, 2–15 Aug, 1.40pm, £9.50--£11.50 (£7.50--£9.50). Quarter Life Crisis, Underbelly Cowgate, 5–27 Aug (not 14), 2.40pm, £10--£11 (£9--£10). Previews 3 & 4 Aug, £6.50. Becoming Scheherazade, Summerhall, 4–27 Aug (not 7, 14, 21), 3pm, £10 (£8). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £7.50 (£5).
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