Folkestone based Theatre Company TRANSPORT has a story to share. Collated from a number of sources and transformed into a third person narrative, Elegy is the story of a young Muslim man from Iraq coming to terms with his sexuality and the persecution that follows close behind, finally forcing his illegal immigration to England.
Sam Phillips as the sole narrator / performer tells the story of the unnamed man, whilst treading carefully and at times precariously across the playing space (set design Hayley Grindle), which is made up of mattresses covered with male clothes. Although Phillips is a white British man, TRANSPORT points out in the programme that it wishes to emphasise the universality of this story.
This is effective as it removes our ability to hide behind a perceived cultural barrier; here is a white man telling of persecution and immigration. We cannot so easily dismiss this as something which happens ‘over-there’. Indeed our guilt as a nation is firmly called into question as Phillips describes the hostile reception in England—the immigration officers ask the man to prove his homosexuality.
The narrative flicks between the young man’s experiences in his home country, to various stages on his perilous journey to Europe. This allows for some creative and effective lighting, in particular the moments when the story lingers on the beach at Calais and Phillips describes the young man’s temporary beach hut accommodation, emphasising the cold disappointment and hostility of European shores. Sound design (Helen Aitkinson) is richly atmospheric and provides shape to the piece which moves between locations and sections of story quite suddenly.
Phillips has a demanding task in this piece, and he performs with great openness and sensitivity, although he seems to lose his place in the story occasionally. He does have the difficult objective of holding the audience with third person narrative which, if handled differently could have alienated us from the story.
In his explanation for the piece in the programme, director Douglas Rintoul mentions the “mass killings of gay men and women in Baghdad carried out by militia groups”. But then goes on to say that “in some small way, we wanted to give a voice to these men’s stories”. Not to the women then? It feels like we are only hearing half of the story. Phillips refers occasionally to the experiences of some lesbian acquaintances but we never hear much more.
What is powerful is the culmination of the story which changes from third to first person, as though the young man is finally able to reconcile his experiences with himself. Elegy is almost a eulogy as well, praising the bravery of those who have died or suffered greatly for simply being themselves.
Reviewer: Anna Jones