This Beach (Brokentalkers) – challenging attitudes to otherness through theatre

As I went to bed on Saturday evening, the radio news bulletin announced the tragic news that over 30 migrants including children had died off the coast of Libya when their boat capsized. The Libyan coastguard had rescued around 60 people from the water and another 140 people in a second boat.

According to IOM figures, nearly 3,000 people are believed to have drowned while attempting to cross the Mediterranean so far this year, and the UN report that at least 33,761 people are reported to have died or gone missing between 2000 and 2017.

I had just returned home from a performance of This Beach in Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. The dark satire takes place on a sandy section of beach that has passed through the one family from generation to generation. Sabine Dargen’s simple set is littered with deck chairs, booze and a parasol for shade. When bodies float ashore, the residents incinerate them as a matter of routine. When a young man revives as they prepare to drag him away, something stops them, and he is allowed to live.

The beach is a metaphor for a country; the family, its citizens. The play by Irish theatre company Brokentalkers examines the thought processes that lead to excessive nationalism and defensive actions which dehumanise the ‘other’.

The eighty minute long drama examines abuse, entitlement, ignorance, racism, misinformation and above all else, fear. The effect of small-minded thinking is physically demonstrated as the protagonists deny that their actions are causing the beach area to shrink. History’s continuing effect on the present is beautifully observed as the father figure Daniel excavates the beach for objects of significance, yet applies none of his learning to his own attitudes.

One character, a young woman Venetia, is marrying into the beach-owning family. She’s a filmmaker and video artist. Having captured the nameless young lad’s story she retells it, twisting it into her own dramatic form, stealing its authenticity and exploiting the giver of the story. A challenge for those of us who report about migration, and an aspect of the play that has its roots in the response of refugees in a camp outside Berlin to a visit by the playwrights Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan. In an interview with the Irish News, Keegan explained:

“The refugees were quite upfront with us in the fact they weren’t really interested in the likes of us white European, somewhat privileged artists, coming in and cherry-picking their horrendous experiences.”

Venetia’s mother is the outsider. At first she protests against the deeply engrained behaviour she witnesses. However her compassion towards the nameless ‘boy’ who is found alive on the beach quickly takes a sinister twist. Over half an hour the exchanges go something like this:

I need water. I’ll get you a beer … What do you need? Water. Get him another beer … Do you need anything? Water. I’ll get you a blanket. [She wraps herself in the blanket]

There is a danger that even those of us who value the lives of refugees and asylum seekers can end up ignoring their true needs, or helping them in a manner than feeds us more than supports them.

“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” (Matthew chapter 23)

While the language is salty, the production is stinging as it holds up its mirror to European attitudes and behaviours. Co-written and co-directed by Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, and shaped by dramaturg Bjarni Johnsson, This Beach is a superb piece of contemporary theatre, packed full of challenges and biting commentary.

Its Irish tour continues with performances in The Everyman in Cork (Monday 27-Wednesday 29 November) and the Mermaid Arts Centre in Bray (Friday 1 December).