Do We Look Like Refugees?
Rustaveli Theatre & National Theatre Studio
Do We Look Like Refugees? is one of Alecky Blythe's verbatim pieces, based on interviews recorded at a Georgian refugee settlement for people who lost their homes in the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia. Her production uses the technique where the actors do not learn their lines but have the edited voices of the original recordings played back over earphones for them to reproduce as precisely as possible with their original cadence and colouring. An award winner on the Edinburgh Fringe last summer, it has already been played in Bracknell but this is its London premier.
To subject the full first night house to a loop of repetitive drone-like singing for nearly fifteen minutes after the official curtain up time is not the best way to get an audience on your side. It not only provided plenty of time to ponder the projected image of green hillsides with a circle of buildings or vehicles on a low plateau that looked like one of those wagon defences used by emigrants to the American West with a hand holding a machine gun in the foreground, to count the four chairs and one table and inspect the lines of washing on either side and the travelling trunks and metal crates that make up Anna Bliss Scully's set, but also to realise just how hard the plastic chairs are in Studio Two. There was probably a perfectly good reason, but no one told us.
It is greatly to the credit of the cast therefore that, moments after the performance actually began, the delay was forgotten and one was totally involved in their performance which is partly in Georgian and partly in fractured English with surtitles to provide appropriate translations.
The whole piece is not much more than 45-minutes long but it packs in a complex picture of what life is like for these people displaced from their homeland, the loss they feel at their separation from the places which are so important to them. They have identification with their village, the place where their families have lived for centuries and where their ancestors graves are, that is so different from the attitudes of metropolitan people whose roots are more shallow and have usually lost that connection.
While the images that follow rapidly in the background are a constant reminder of the destruction they have left behind them, as well as providing appropriate images for a particular setting, what comes through from these interviews is the apparent normality. Claimants seeking welfare support, local government officials: it all seems very familiar which makes the difference in their circumstances seem even more poignant without any histrionics. These are spirited people who break into song; you can't help but like them.
There is a humorous strand going through in the way they react to Blythe as director and interviewer and, as editor of the dialogue, she has retained parts that explain exactly how the piece is constructed.
You won't learn much of the history or politics of their situation from Do We Look Like Refugees? but you do go away feeling that you have met a collection of interesting people. There is no plot as such, but with the multiple characters these five actors play with such apparent authenticity make you feel you have been on a visit and shared a little time with some real people.
"Do We Look Like Refugees?" is at the Riverside Studios until 29th May then Drum theatre, Plymouth 1st - 4th June
Reviewer: Howard Loxton