Nine Lives

Zodwa Nyoni
Leeds Studio in association with West Yorkshire Playhouse
Arcola Theatre (Studio 2)
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Lladel Bryant as Ishmael Credit: Adam Robinson

Zodwa Nyoni, moved by deportation of a friend, set about trying to understand the process of claiming asylum in the UK. This play is the result. It draws on the experience of individuals she met at the Meeting Point drop-in centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Leeds and seeks to share their experience.

It is not about the process but about the experience, the emotional situation, played out here by Lladel Bryant as Ishmael, a young man from Zimbabwe who has fled his country. This is not just his story but that of many, staged with great simplicity and directness.

There is no décor in a conventional sense: the bare floor and naked brick wall of the theatre with a single lampholder hanging from the grid. The space is dimly lit when Ishmael enters. He’s a young man in jeans and t-shirt wearing a track suit top, from the pocket of which he pulls a light bulb and screws it in the fitting.

There is sudden brightness from which he starts back in fear. There is the sound of an angry crowd, a mob, and he starts running, and running faster ‘til, out of breath, he stops and instead of angry voices there are the sweet notes of a mbira, an African thumb piano.

Now Ishmael speaks for all refugees, for all those running, as he will again in verses repeatedly phrased as “Some of us ….” to embrace the sufferings and situations.

Then folding his jacket with neat precision he begins to speak of his own life.

A ticking clock has replaced the mbira. It is getting slower. Waiting has become his life, a life in Leeds, a place he pictures.

He has a mobile, he makes a 'phone call but an answering machine is all that answers. Gradually he reveals the details of his story but on the way he tells of those he meets, the woman in whose flat he lives.

Within a formal framework, Bryant and his director Alex Chisholm create a very intimate performance imbued with personality as the actor performs the central character with a warmth and openness that makes his situation the more poignant. He also plays all the people that he meets, especially engaging as a young single mother who befriends him.

A gay young man, who fled Harare after his sexuality was exposed, now even abandoned by his lover, interrogation by immigration, is painfully demeaning, survival difficult on the £36.62 allowed each week, most people hardly acknowledge his existence, he even invents another persona to make contact.

The situation may be sombre but this is a performance full of life and humour that packs more than you can imagine into a piece of stripped-down theatre that barely lasts an hour but still offers a full experience of total engagement.

This is a play that makes statistics human. Through a shared glimpse of one person’s story it speaks for many. It moves by entertaining not by preaching.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton