It Felt Empty When the Heart Went At First but It Is All Right Now
Arcola Theatre, Dalston
The title of this play comes from a newspaper cutting, read out by a character in it, which quotes a little girl of seven, interviewed by journalists after having a heart-transplant, as saying just that. But this isn't a play about organ surgery or organ theft in a literal sense but a different loss of heart, a play about trust and loss of trust, vulnerability, exploitation and the way in which optimism and romantic aspirations can oil a trap that ruins lives.
It presents us with a young woman, a hopeful from Croatia - though she could be from many countries -- who saves the money to come to Britain and there thinks she has found love. It is her story, but one that reflects that of many other women, legal visitors or illegal immigrants, and it draws its elements from interviews by the dramatist with women in a British internment centre, some of whom may not be illegal but cannot prove it for they have no passports or appropriate documents.
It is presented in a series of 'rooms' constructed in a large studio which is a former factory building at the rear of the Arcola Theatre complex. The audience is first ushered into a large, sparsely furnished bedroom: just bed, wardrobe, a rug, a fridge and a small mirror on the wall. When the lights go up a figure on the bed is yelling and flailing the air. This is Dijana Polancec; she has been trying to get a bird to fly out of the window but, panicking as it flies at her, she has accidentally killed it.
Voicing her regret she tells how it happened but, though she may appear to be addressing the members of the audience she isn't. It becomes clear that it is someone else she's talking too, she even produces a tiny snapshot of them - could it be a boyfriend, a lover? Gradually you come to realise it is her child, a child from whom she has been separated for she has been forced into prostitution by a man who has confiscated her passport until such time as she pays back the £20,000 he claims she owes him.
Hara Yannas as Dijana sustains this monologue alone for two thirds of the play. It is a stunningly accomplished performance. She counts the condoms in the trash as she waits for the next client - twenty-one so far, the twenty-second will bring her earnings up to £20,000 which pays of her debt to Babac, her pimp and former boyfriend. Then she can get back the passport that he took away and stop doing this. We even watch as she writhes on the bed with that final (invisible) customer, but though Dijana declares she loves the sex there is nothing prurient about this display.
Does she really believe she'll get her passport back? Maybe we know too much to share her optimism - but she does escape. After passing through a room of installations that takes us to the Brighton where she has been dreaming of eating chips and taking her child swimming and then another hung with children's clothes and cuddly toys and lined with filing cabinets that is surely intended to suggest both her hopes and the harsh realities of what we soon discover has happened, we find her (and ourselves) confined in a long corridor of disconcertingly mis-sized doors and significant labels. Here, in a detention centre, she is briefly befriended by another detainee, West African Gloria, another strong performance from Madeline Appiah, in a scene that encapsulates the stresses and desperation of the situation.
Dijana's future is unresolved for now we go back in time, or memory, to a much larger space that seems to celebrate domesticity and the idea of motherhood. Here, expecting to fly off on holiday, a pregnant Dijana, considers herself being spoiled by lover Babac, even though the maid has stopped coming and she has to do the cleaning as well as taking the telephone calls from punters, she still does not yet realise what is happening.
It is hardly news that foreign women can be trapped into the sex-trade, whether brought into the country illegally or just exploited by those by whom they thought themselves befriended, but the reality of this beautifully written character gives one a deeper understanding of how people can find themselves in such a situation and it provides the opportunity for splendid acting.
Though I am an enthusiast for promenade performance I am less certain about how much designer Chloe Lamford's environments add to the experience. They provide proximity and that is an important element but it is a play that probably would still be powerful with less elaborate staging. The published text which comes with the programme suggests an added level of audience interaction but though I would normally welcome such involvement but I think this is a case where the decision to keep us as observers is a right one, contrived participation would add nothing beyond a momentary emotive reaction.
Though this is strong stuff Dijana's optimism and a quirky sense of humour stop it from being depressing or draining. It is a play that does not wallow in emotion but makes a strong demand for compassion and understanding
Until 31st October 2009
Reviewer: Howard Loxton