Border Tales

Conceived by Luca Silvestini and co-devised by original cast and others

Luca Silvestrini’s Protein, presented by The Place

Summerhall

From 04 August 2017 to 26 August 2017

Rating: *

Review by Keith Mckenna

If you are in the mood to celebrate lazy racism then pop over to Summerhall and watch Border Tales.

Most of it is spoken by the character Andy who is holding a party for people of different cultural backgrounds. He is a walking encyclopaedia of stereotyped assumptions about people’s ethnicity and faith.

He can never stop telling people what to expect from each other, and when he takes a break from saying so to the party guests, he dashes up the central aisle of the theatre to say similar things to members of the audience.

His friend Steve, a Catholic, Guinness drinking Irish man who likes a drunken jig, says he doesn’t mind Andy’s Northern (England) sense of humour though “not everyone wants to hear jokes about Pakis.”

Andy does feel a bit overwhelmed by foreigners. He says his “street is like Heathrow arrivals. Left India Right Europe.”

Trying to be positive, he does admit that it means you can have food from anywhere in the world to put on the top of your pizza. But there is a downside. A foreigner took his cousin’s job and “who wants a million more immigrants, especially Muslim?”  

To help us understand what that would mean, the rest of the cast play up to the stereotypes. The Muslim character implies he made a bomb that morning with his eight wives whom he beats.

No wonder these prejudiced Northerners voted to end the world by voting Brexit and, just to make sure we understand that is what Andy is about, we are shown him teaching the party guests a new dance in which he grows increasingly emphatic on the words “leave” and “close the gates”.

The show packs in so many prejudices you would think they had no time for dancing. But they do. We first meet Andy when he joins on stage a black man who is dancing to what sounds like monkey noises.

What is claimed by the company to be a satire of prejudice feels more like a simple display of prejudice against foreigners, Brexit voters and Northerners.

So why is this show getting five star reviews and looking a likely winner of all kinds of awards? Has the world gone potty and the reviews with the exception of the insightful writing of Alexandra Gray been written while asleep?

Certain brief scenes help to explain why so many regard it to be opposed to prejudice. In one, the Muslim character dances while being asked questions that are often ridiculous and certainly based on prejudice. With each question, his body contorts as if punched. It is an indication of the pain prejudice can cause.

In another scene, Andy grows increasingly terrified as he sits on a chair under a single light asking is this “a melting pot or a time bomb.”

He has had his comeuppance. His prejudice has reduced him to a pathetic wreck.

But it might be read differently. Someone might say that despite all his efforts to welcome foreigners they have worn him down. Andy is a victim.

The same sequence could happen with the dance of the Muslim character. After all, there have been terrible attacks by people who are Muslims. Questions have to be asked.

What the show really leaves you with is the one distinct character Andy who may be bigoted but in a deliberately light and foolish way that allows you to smile and regard him as harmless and as a consequence perhaps regard the prejudice in the same way.

We don’t get to know or even care about the foreigners who, though they may slip in some morsel about the reality of their lives, is too slight to be remembered and easily eclipsed by their more knockabout stereotypes.

There is a risky complacency about what the show is doing with the stereotypes it depicts, and a simplistic account of what they refer to as the “migrant outsiders and bigoted homelanders.”

There are those on both sides of the referendum debate who for political reasons would like to define the people who voted to exit as motivated mainly by xenophobia. This show feeds that perspective and that can only make migrants already in a very precarious position more fearful. It also does nothing for the millions who voted exit feeling misrepresented by those who run society.

If the show is trying to say something about the Brexiteers or racists then it needs something more complicated than the long lazy parade of stereotypes and prejudices. Otherwise we risk contributing to the problem, not understanding it or better still changing it.