Sînziana Koenig and Nico Vaccari
Northern Stage, Newcastle
It is a very long time since I last saw a play as angrily political as Illegalised. Focusing on the British state’s treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, it works through a series of scenes, starting with the death of a young man trying to smuggle himself through the Tunnel and ending with a deportation.
We watch immigration officers in training and in action. We see the attitudes of the police as they support their immigration colleagues. We see the worries of immigrants, both legal and illegal. We follow the progress of an asylum application. Immigration officers who show sympathy for the “subs” are ridiculed by their fellows. We see and hear (in Romanian, with subtitles projected onto the back wall) an immigrant woman, a “specialist” cleaner, talking on the phone to her mother back in Romania.
There’s a song, reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, listing the “benefits” Britain has brought to a vast range of countries throughout the (mainly third) world. It’s sung by cast member Lizzie Clarke wearing the traditional colonial uniform, complete with solar topee and moustache.
When questioned about what they are doing, the officers’ reply is simple: “we’re only doing our job.” The fact that a similar excuse cut no ice at Nuremburg is lost on them.
There’s no nuance here, no subtlety. It is agitprop at its finest. Its text, we are told, is “a response to the material gathered while interviewing 34 migrants, refugees and those seeking asylum as well as activists and academics in the field of racism, state violence and colonialism.”
The lack of nuance, the rawness, the blatant one-sidedness of the piece is an inevitable response, it seems to me, to the toxic anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far right.
It moves quickly and the cast—Lizzie Clarke, Theo Green, Ahmad Sakhi, Oana Pușcatu, under the direction of the two writers—switch character as easily as their costumes. There’s no depth of characterisation but that’s OK, because that’s not what this kind of play is about; rather it is aimed at making its points as effectively and powerfully as possible and carrying the audience along so that, afterwards, they will remember, sympathise with the immigrant and question the government’s stance.
This was the final stop on a six-venue national tour. It’s good that Newcastle audiences, even in the small venue that is Stage 3, had the chance to see it. And there is more to come, for the company calls it “the first part of our protest-theatre play cycle denouncing Britain’s dehumanising of people for power and profit.”
In this play, it is not just the immigrants who are dehumanised but the immigration officers and perhaps the public too.
It’s not great literature; it’s not great drama, but it is great (i.e. effective) propaganda and does reveal an aspect of immigration that is rarely shown or even discussed.