True to life

Michael Ableson 30 October 2007

There is something unnerving about listening to a blonde-haired, well-spoken British boy relate how he was made to participate in the torture of pregnant women, just as there is in hearing a middle-class white woman describe how a politically motivated gang shot her family and left them for dead in her home. This combination of incomprehensibly alien experiences with reassuringly familiar faces is one of the peculiar strengths of Asylum Monologues; a performance of biography interwoven with advocacy that uses three actors’ criss-crossing speeches to relate the plight of asylum seekers in Britain.

Directed by Rebecca Morahan at the behest of the university’s Student Action for Refugees group, Asylum Monologues is primarily a tool for education. It wants to elicit emotion from its audience, but it also wants to ensure that people leave the auditorium knowing that asylum seekers’ are denied the right to work; that they receive substandard benefits; that they account for less than 5% of immigrants and that they can be detained indefinitely at the pleasure of Her Majesty’s Government. The sudden transitions from heartfelt accounts of individuals’ suffering to detailed investigations of the British legal system can be rather jarring, but at a time when even left-leaning individuals seem to only know the phrase ‘asylum seeker’ as a satirist’s punch line, it’s easy to see why so unambiguous an account was thought necessary.

Given its educational tone it would have been easy for Asylum Monologues to become a moralising lecture, but the author Sonja Linden wisely allows the material to stand for itself. In the end the smallest and subtlest of details are the ones that prove the most powerful. The audience is shocked when it hears of the boy who had a swastika forcibly branded on his chest at age 15, but is only really moved when told of the ways he tried to hide it from his doctor.

Asylum Monologues is designed to be staged with the barest minimum of resources and preparation time, so it is extremely likely that further performances will be forthcoming. I would strongly recommend that people attend. It is not an entertaining production – true stories of human misery rarely are – but it’s an enlightening production, and concerns an issue which is increasingly addressed and increasingly misinterpreted in public debate. Whatever your opinions on asylum are, you can rely on them to be better informed by the end of the night, and for that reason alone it is worth attending.

Michael Ableson