How To Break Out Of A Detention Centre

Sînziana Cojocărescu
Bezna Theatre (UK) and Giuvlipen's co-production
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith

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Faiza (Alaa Taha) Credit: Héctor Manchego
Elena (Mihaela Drăgan) Credit: Héctor Manchego
Faiza (Alaa Taha) Credit: Héctor Manchego

You don’t have to wait long to hear some public figure worrying about the supposed threat of migrants. Rarely do you get stories about the migrants themselves.

The British Romanian theatre company BÉZNĂ and the Roma feminist theatre company Giuvlipen take us to the fictional experiences of four women in the Derwentside women’s detention centre in County Durham that opened in December 2021 and was the subject of a damning December 2022 government report on its treatment of women detainees.

Back projections of images conjure up the thoughts of characters. Faiza (Alaa Taha) from Sudan has lost a baby but is convinced she is still pregnant. Increasingly disturbed, she sometimes talks to the bloodied face of a young man appearing on the wall behind her.

The detainee Maria (Zita Moldovan) from Romania becomes friends with Faiza, and they manage to chat without entirely understanding each other’s language. Fearing Faiza might kill herself, Maria tries unsuccessfully to persuade the nurse, Elena (Mihaela Drăgan), to do something.

She also worries when she receives an official letter in English, a language she cannot read. The letter rejects her plea to have her children returned to her and the guard, Kelly (Lizzie Clarke), refuses to give her access to a phone to seek help in the matter.

Both the nurse Elena and the guard Kelly are shown worrying about the detainees and at one point Kelly’s quick action probably saves someone’s life.

This is a well-performed play in which we hear five languages (Romanian, Romani, Arabic, French and English) with surtitles for the non-English languages. It dramatically and sometimes movingly touches on important issues concerning the isolation felt by detainees, the insensitive lack of support and the inadequate training of staff.

However, structurally it leaves us puzzling over far too much. Who is the bloodied man projected on the back wall? Why do we suddenly shoot back to 1972 with the suggestion of child abuse? (That one I suspect is a reference to an early history of Derwentside detention centre.) And why distract the audience with the confusing, undeveloped depiction of the troubled relationship between the nurse Elena and Victoria (Lizzie Clarke)?

We also lack much of a back-story to explain why, for instance, Maria’s children were taken into care. Given the politics of the writer, I suspect it was for bad bureaucratic reasons, but some audience members might wonder if it is to avoid child abuse.

The weaknesses of the show make it difficult to empathise with the characters. They can seem very remote. The obscure voice-overs including the occasional lyrical element don't help. There may be a poetic sound to the repeated line “there’s a bird in my blood screaming to be free”, but what is it adding to our connection with the women?

The damning December 2022 report of the HM Inspectorate of Prisons into the isolated Derwentside detention centre revealed a third of the detainees had considered suicide, two-thirds had felt depressed, staff were using risky unauthorised physical force and on at least one occasion used “derogatory remarks” about a detainee in front of other detainees.

The Chief Inspector of Prisons points out that "there is… a real risk that... the fragilities that our inspection identified could lead to real harm."

The women detained or working in that centre need a voice. Theatre should help us scrutinise and understand this unsafe unnecessary centre. Hopefully, one day, the play How to Break Out of a Detention Centre will be able to do these things.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna