7.30pm, Tue 5 Nov, Riley Auditorium, Clare College
Sitting in a brightly lit auditorium barely a quarter full is, I hope, not your average Cambridge theatre experience. Nor is watching something that had only been rehearsed for two hours prior to performance. But the aim of Ice and Fire’s Asylum Monologues was not to create the most theatrical experience for the audience, but to convey an urgent need to them, the need to protect the rights of asylum seekers in the UK.
Three actors sat at the front of this conference auditorium, and read interloping monologues. These had been drawn directly from interviews with asylum seekers, about what they had experienced in their home countries and when they arrived in the UK. The first was a man from the Congo, who fled from political oppression only to be left destitute in the UK. The real life Willy is still awaiting a Home Office decision on his case. The second was a woman from Cameroon, whose husband was arrested and who had to flee, abandoning her children. The third was a woman from Uganda who was first detained for her political activism, and faced extreme physical abuse in her own country, only for her story to be doubted and her dignity abused in the UK as well.
I was surprised by two things. First by how emotionally involved with the actors I could become, even in such starch conditions. No effort was made to make the actors look like their characters. There was little movement during the performance and it was clear that they were not very familiar with their scripts. Despite this, their simple story telling was engaging and convincing. The fact that each was a true story certainly added to the impact.
Second, I was surprised that the points that moved me most were not the tales of rape, raids and physical torture from their home countries, but the things that happened when they arrived here. The actors described diplomatic torture – the Home Office’s interminable decision process ‘killing people mentally’. The Ugandan woman found out her appeal was denied because she was a ‘low key activist’. Despite medical examinations finding she’d been raped, abused with knives, and the fact that her first act in the UK was to give birth to a child of rape, she was not in enough danger to warrant protection. Willy’s claim was denied because a translator, who did not speak good French, had misunderstood what he was saying. When he was asked to repeat the same facts his stories did not align, so his plea was rejected. In the discussion following the performance we heard that asylum case workers are stigmatised for accepting a claim, that they search above all for reasons and loopholes to not allow entry and leave to remain.
The actors were not as prepared as they could have been, and no attempt was made to create atmosphere outside what the actors could produce themselves. But my only true disappointment was how few people were in the audience, so how limited the impact of their message could be.