Lives in Translation: new play highlights inadequacy of asylum system #BelFest

Theatre can confront audiences with stories and people that they would normally not hear or see. Last night the premiere performance of a new play Lives in Translation took place in Belfast.

The three-handed play tells the story of one Somali woman who fled from Mogadishu. Yet Asha does not escape from conflict. While she no longer lives in such fear of death and sexual violence, she is now at war with an asylum process and frustrated at every turn by the necessity to work through interpreters.

Playwright Rosemary Jenkinson spoke to Focus on Refugees a few weeks ago about the process of interviewing Somali women who are refugees or are seeking asylum in Belfast. From those conversations she has pieced together a compelling piece of theatre that lays bare the inhumanity of the asylum process.

“I’ve been questioned a hell of a lot for someone who hasn’t committed a crime.”

Raquel McKee holds the centre of the stage dressed in her colourful garbasaar for the hour long performance playing Asha, voicing the frustration and desperation when she realises that she’s been trafficked to Dublin rather than the US, and as weeks turn to months and then years as she ‘battles’ the system while coping with the distress of being separated from her family.

The passage of time is emphasised by Conan McIvor’s giant clock which is projected onto the set. This visual timepiece provides a signal for flashback scenes that look back to happier times in Mogadishu. Tony Flynn ably slips in and out of accents and jackets as he portrays the disinterested legal system, a welcoming and can-do Belfast church worker, as well as Asha’s singing and dancing husband.

Stuart Marshall’s set backdrop consists of panels of documentation and forms and receipts. Words also infect Liz Cullinane’s costume design with blouses, shawls and ties sporting newspaper articles.

The cultural identity of an interpreter may clash with their client. Amongst other characters, Julie Maxwell plays the role of a translator whose tribal background and personal prejudice leads to the misrepresentation of Asha’s case and contributes to her asylum application being refused. It’s shocking and sad but all too believable that the asylum process lacks any self-awareness of its in-built flaws and weaknesses.

The questions used to ascertain the veracity of an individual’s story and background are shown to be inflexible. The default position of disbelief makes the authority figures into the liars and deceivers as they twist the words to catch people out. Yet they stand proudly above any claim of prevarication or obfuscation. Then there’s the process of deportation from Belfast to Dublin via a boat to Scotland, the bus to Glasgow, Manchester, London and a flight to Dublin … before stepping straight back onto a pre-booked bus to return north to Belfast and start the process all over again.

The few moments of grace and generosity in Asha’s story contrast sharply with the constant grind of ‘detention centres’ that don’t allow you to cook your own food, and tribunals which want you to be able to sing the pop music that was at the top of the charts when you fled your country.

Yet Jenkinson allows Asha’s black humour and to lift the mood with statements like “I want no memories. I’ll take pills every day, like the Irish!” and spotting parallels between the Titanic and her own failure to reach the US. With no props and very little human contact, director Paula McFetridge relies on good delivery, expression and movement to carry the story.

“How do your children know that you love them?”

Lives in Translation escapes the trap of merely being a worthy liberal rage by providing a window into a world that is clearly not fictional. The audience watch state-run processes grind Asha down over a ten year period. There really is no happy ending to this tale of disempowerment and loss. Happy hormones are not released at the end of the play with a hopefilled finale. Instead the audience are invited to sign a petition calling for progress and justice in a local asylum case that is still ongoing after 14 years.

Kabosh’s production of Lives in Translation runs in S13 on the Boucher Road as part of Belfast International Arts Festival until Saturday 28 October before touring through Downpatrick Courthouse (Tuesday 31), Newtownards (Wednesday 1 November), Dungannon Courthouse (Thursday 2), and Derry’s Cultúrlann (Saturday 4).

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