This review considers the performance of The Border at Theatre Peckham. The play, written by Afsaneh Gray and directed by Natalie Wilson, remains on tour across the UK until 6th November.
I have many mixed feelings about this play. Clearly influenced by an array of modern politics affecting a large body of countries at the moment, this play struggles, in my opinion, to juggle its inspirations against its content. It has a huge issue with style and with the coherency of its subject matter but also with its manner of dealing with its own significance extending beyond the stage. For this review, I will consider what issues in current politics this play is actually addressing and then how these issues [mis]inform style, content and, above all, rather ineffective objectives.
This play imagines the division (East and West) of a fictional setting, Oolia, through the construction of a fence i.e. the border. Inspired rather literally, I should imagine, from the Trumpian wall, this acts as a touchstone, of course, to a far greater politics concerning immigrants and immigration laws. The theme of foreignness thus becomes crucial to this play's progression — its very setting, Oolia, evoking some faraway, foreign country with its made-up, non-English name — and this signals a large focus on the relationship between migrants and non-migrants. This relationship is represented rather bluntly in the dramatic text, evoking the clichéd image of illegal migrants entering countries underhandedly, stealing jobs and assets and trading in underground markets. This, at least, is the image evoked by the characters of Julia's (Jazmine Wilkinson) family and the mayor (Rujenne Green).
Despite the play ending with a rather positive outlook on the possibility of harmonising migrant/non-migrant relationships, the direct manner in which migrants are represented in this play, preempted by this evoked image, is quite inappropriate. The opinions of the characters on migrants, taken as fact by little Julia — and hence by the audience, being that she is our guide through the text — are proven to be true when the Migrant (Matt Littleson) takes advantage of Julia’s kindness, takes her grandmother's fruits and is then seen working alongside the Smuggler (Lucie Capel) in the black market trade. This is inappropriate, for this play consistently confirms that migrants are, indeed, multifaceted, conniving and unscrupulous in rather extreme ways, such as killing innocent stolen dogs, which I shall detail later. And to prove his worth, the Migrant must undo all he has done and prove his decency by returning Stranger (Green) to Julia. But even this is not done wholeheartedly, as he remains ever-elusive and unconvinced if he should do “the right thing”. Oh, and what a charming name the Smuggler is, too…
Then there is the use of accents. All multi-roling actors assumed various cultural profiles for their rather caricaturistic characters which, one can only assume, are most definitely not in line with their own. When placed alongside a direct discourse on migrants, this is most problematic. It comes across as mocking and, quite frankly, racist, particularly when such strong, negative images are evoked of migrants and then the migrants are represented specifically as Scottish or Russian, for example, as was the case in this play. I would urge director Natalie Wilson to be more careful about the sociopolitical suggestions beyond the world of the performance, though there is a slight chance that this is an editorial issue.
This rather bleak and dilute discourse on migration is not the original direction of the play, however. The audience is first presented with a group of dogs who perform a musical number before revealing that Oolia was once a sort of land of the free before humans arrived. Dogs being a particularly territorial animal, one would think this is a good throughway to immigration politics and the relationship between humans and space, but what happens, instead, is that another form of politics is offered, one which concerns the Anthropocene and the frictional relationship between humans and nature. Also generated, less politically, is an unwanted sense of the pre-apocalyptic which has nothing to do with this performance.
Right through to the very end of the play when the dogs sing yet another musical number, with a message that reads closely to "home is where the heart is, and my heart is here", we do not see a dog again at all but once: when it is revealed that the Migrant has given Stranger to the Smuggler. The dog characters we see at the beginning completely disappear, and with it, the pre-apocalyptic politics of the Anthropocene, and this renders the entire opening and ending disjointed, insignificant and hence unnecessary.
Straight after the first scene, the dogs become both over-sentimentalised objects and a symbol of possession theft, chased and adored by Oolians far and wide and stolen and butchered by thieving migrants. And what better way to convey the evil and spite of the migrants by having them steal cute little puppy dogs. This use makes far more sense within the context of this play, but I find it incredibly bizarre that the dogs are used in this initial, singsongy way. I have no idea why an utterly unrelated, cutesy musical number by dogs features in this performance at all. These are endearing and poignant as self-contained scenes, yes, but it has such little bearing in this performance, if any at all, and I would not have included it, myself.
We see here the emergence of a vast friction between content and style. This is something that this performance struggles with incessantly, and I believe this is due to a misguided interest in Epic theatre.
There are clearly a lot of Brechtian influences at work in this performance (character titles: the Mayor, the Smuggler, the Migrant; gestus; announced scene titles; and, most majorly, direct audience address and opening the play up to audience dialogue). However, whilst these features of Epic theatre are used, this is primarily a dramatic piece of theatre, not an Epic one. Prerecorded music, a puppet sequence, inhuman characters (viz. ghostly figures of Julia’s family or social media posters, dogs), needless gags and comedy that do not progress plot, insignificant props, these are all components of dramatic theatre, a mode of theatre which the Epic directly subverts and contradicts. It is erroneous to put these two together for any reason whatsoever. I am sure that this production wanted to be enlightening and challenging, especially having opened the floor up to public debate on the importance/meaning of voting, which I shall return to later, yet this was definitely not the case.
A primary example of how this play missed the mark in attempting an Epic “style” is in its use of scene titles. All decisions made in theatre and their potential effects must be cleverly calculated. In Epic theatre, the audience are given titles before each episode which detail the events that are going to happen. This removes any shock, drama and tension, for the audience know which events will transpire already. This means that they can focus on the episode's significance as nothing but a profound moral teaching. This is hence a deep, meaningful technique that aims to realign audience focus towards the subtextual and sociopolitical significance of a play. In this performance, each scene is numbered (again an issue, as chronology is a component of the dramatic linear narrative and not the Epic) and is titled, but the title seems to focus on meaningless things such as Julia sharing her biscuit with the Migrant. In no way, shape or form does this make for distanced, reflective or didactic theatre; instead, it simply makes for an unwanted quirky and texturised narrative style. Epic theatre should not be used thusly for entertainment or intrigue, for if it is, the effects can only be disappointing, half-hearted and unrefined.
The most proper use of Epic theatre in this play is when the floor is opened to the audience to discuss their opinions on voting. However, despite this usage being somewhat in line with proper Epic techniques, the outcome is extremely lacklustre and unfruitful. This is because yet another strand of politics is deliberated: voting politics. Who should vote? Why should we vote? Is voting important? How do we vote? These are but a few enquiries this sequence makes. I found this jump to be rather out-of-place structurally and felt that voting was the least important element of this play to open up to the audience. Having had so much energy, drive and focus in this play directed to the social roles, statuses and perceptions of migrants, I find it difficult to understand why so much significance was placed onto voting, something that was only just introduced and that was over and done with in the very next scene.
I will note here that it is also important that when the audience is allowed to participate or speak their minds that they do so with the illusion of power and freedom and that performers retain the true agency and control of the space. With the performance overrunning and, more importantly, with the utterly unconstructive and impertinent direction this open floor went in, it is clear that performers had very little management of this sequence, clearly unprepared for answers in their inability to expand on them educationally. In fact, when one audience member stated that the older generation "are just going to die soon, so they should just shut up", I was surprised to see the cast laughing and not challenging or stifling such vile and intolerable ageist statements. What ensued – a whirlwind of spiteful, ageist voices belittling the older generation – felt unbelievably, wildly unrelatable to a performance about happy dogs and thieving migrants, whatever bland link can be found to join it all together. It was frankly a disturbing and revolting display which performers handled terribly in their clear lack of direction and intention. Deliberations became exclusive and multidirectional, going around and around with little enlightenment and with absolute purposelessness. It is important that questions asked in segments such as this are decisive, specific and lead to a clear greater objective.
This performance tends to jump from discourse to discourse, never finalising or concluding its points, never successfully introducing or fulfilling its research. Whilst I can see, very clearly, how all political issues raised in this performance co-exist and combine with one another in the real world, in the world of this performance, they all seem utterly disparate, unwoven and unlinked. They are separate lines of discourse or thought that the performance chases haphazardly, forgetting to carefully guide its audience along with it.
On to the more technical notes. First, characterisation. Overall, the multi-roling actors were adequately transformative, having distinctive idiosyncrasies and voices for each of their characters. However, were it not for their accompanying props, I would certainly have been confused from time to time as to what characters actors were portraying. Characterisations did tend to bleed into one another in this way, notably due to voice work, yet a proper implementation of Gestus would have aided this. Noting voice work, I will also say that, despite the faltering vocals (not really an issue, as the lyrics and nature of the numbers were endearing enough alone), diction during songs was very good amongst these performers, amongst the best I’ve seen.
There were many areas of this performance that I feel were disappointing because, again, of this Brechtian influence. In regards to Stranger, for example, having such a presence throughout this performance, it is incredibly dissatisfying that Green portrays her as a gruff and hoarse male(?). I would imagine this was to eliminate any emotional impact finally seeing Stranger would have amongst the audience and to destroy the climax that has been building in the constant references to her. If done correctly, however, there would not have been any climax or emotion to eliminate or diffuse in the first place. What is left of this moment is just pure and simple disappointment. Then, there is the inconsistency of Stranger later being represented by the first and only puppet. However cute and, ultimately, cathartic this puppet reunion was, it was utterly incongruous stylistically to the rest of the performance.
Music and sound (Ted Barnes) suffered a very similar fate, becoming ignorant of subject matter, moods and potential emotional impact. Examples of this: the music ended far too sharply at the end of Scene 5; at the end of Scene 13, I believe, the music was far too chirpy following the extensive murder of the dogs; and, similarly, the Smuggler scenes were set up as far too comedic with the overdramatic door creaks and accompanying mime, belittling the impact of this said murder by making the Smuggler and Migrant seem endearing.
Stylistic issues aside, music was very well composed and sounds were, for the most part, realistic and synchronised with onstage action. Lighting (Neill Brinkworth) was equally effective, if perhaps a little excessive in areas. Props, however, I found to be very confused in their design. Whilst I enjoyed the blunt branding on the cereals, cookies and milk, etc., the mixed use of props and mime, along with childish plastic fruit, made for a confused aesthetic and haphazard realism. The same goes for costume (designed by Alice Hallifax), mostly being rather simplistic yet contrasted greatly with the absurd, huge hats of the Border Guards (Green and Littleson), for example. Finally, set (also designed by Hallifax). Though an odd choice of material and shape, set proved itself to be most dynamic. The constant border upstage made for a poignant and thematic image.
Receiving very, very little marks from me in terms of its political potential and appeal, I mark this performance solely in the consideration of its value as a [rather fallible] piece of dramatic theatre. I do this with certainly endearing scenes and moments, along with a high-energy performance from all performers, in mind.
“A confused, if endearing, performance that misappropriates too many different modes of theatre in an aim to find its feet.”
Photography credit: Jack Barnes.