Review: Rights of Passage

Anna Stephenson 19 October 2017

Coverage of the refugee crisis has been a staple feature in British newspapers for the last few years.  When a subject becomes such a perennial element, it can become lost amongst traffic reports, weather forecasts and dubiously ‘miraculous’ weight loss advice, turning from shocking statistic to the horrifyingly humdrum white noise of yet another news cycle. Rights of Passage, running from Tuesday 17th of October to Saturday 21st at Corpus Playroom, aims to take us on a journey beyond the printed word and into the visceral, hyper-physical universe of the immediate spoken accounts of LGBT refugees.

While factual articles regarding the issue can raise awareness and promote discussion of a topic many of us may be insulated from, the narrative can be alarmingly skewed towards seeing these human lives in crisis as merely statistical problems to be solved, or fixated on numbers entering the country, used either to encourage more government action or to scaremonger.

This production, in collaboration with OxCam (indeed, its associate director, Miriam Quinn, is OxCam President), aims to, as Margaret Atwood would put it, draw attention to the people whose full experiences are not and cannot be contained in conventional print media, who live in the blank white spaces at the edges of print, whose voices scream silently in the gaps between the stories.

Rights of Passage puts the true, documented experiences of three LGBT+ refugees at centre stage. It therefore makes a political as well as a theatrical point about the stories that the media or our existing biases prompt us to tell, and these may not always be the stories we need to hear.

The play revolves around the stories of three protagonists: Miremba, a Ugandan victim of forced marriage; Izzuddin, a Malay man who faces loss of scholarship and deportation due to his sexuality; and Hamed, an Iranian man whose identity is both ridiculed and denied by the Home Office.

While these characters (and, crucially, real people) form the focal point of this production, the ensemble cast backing them are not simply used to illustrate the events, often traumatic, recounted by the narrators. More than that, they invade the spaces of the monologues, even when other characters are not strictly necessary to the action. Forming a physical, threatening barrier to the refugee as they attempt to speak, this production adopts the disturbing technique of personifying the often abstract and disturbing mechanisms that can obscure the humanity or voice of a person and prevent them from speaking their truth. However, this role is subverted later during the play, as the ensemble form a literal support for the speaker.

This innovative use of the ensemble allows us to experience the true, almost literal, weight of words, and the extent to which words can be spoken, amplified or suppressed in a vacuum. There is no solitary speaker in any monologue; and the characters’ words do not stand alone.  Not only are the asylum seekers persecuted in their own countries, but their experiences of discrimination and erasure do not end with their arrival in Europe, instead, being forced in an ironic twist to prove the sexual identity they had learnt for so long to be silent about.

The idea that It is not just who speaks but how they speak, is heavily emphasised by Sneha Lala’s direction. Letting refugees speak in their own voices, not one that is chosen or ‘sanitised’ by the West, proves a deeply effective technique. The most grammatically ‘correct’ utterances are often the ones repeated like a mantra, such as referring to homosexuality as ‘demonic’.  The contrast between the initially almost humorous broken English of Hamed’s first forays into online dating and the technical accuracy of the ensemble’s homophobic screeching implies that those who speak in the most orthodox ways can sometimes make the least sense.

Taking us on a journey through Malaysia, Uganda and Iran, Rights of Passage reveals the structural problems and institutional discrimination in the UK as well as in the characters’ countries of origin. The proximity of the ‘issue’ to ‘home’ forces the truth behind the headlines into extreme focus.