The Swallowing Dark
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse
Theatre 503, London
The Swallowing Dark engulfs, consumes and grows until certainties and firm-held beliefs are reduced to nothing more than passing hunches and whispered confusion.
Lizzie Nunnery’s taut two-hand play follows the story of Canaan (Wil Johnson) a refugee from Zimbabwe. Having failed to renew his refugee status on time, he is struggling to convince Martha (Allyson Ava-Brown), the officer assigned to him by Her Majesty’s Government, that both he and his son should be allowed to remain in the UK. He tells her nothing has changed in his homeland; that even though "it’s not on the nine o’clock news" his people are not "all sunbathing and counting [our] money".
Alex Eales’s design—a run-down room with great gouges and scratches carved into the cheap plasterboard walls—serves as all the spaces in the play. It is Canaan’s current home, Martha’s office, Martha’s home and the home Canaan used to inhabit in Zimbabwe with his wife Nomsa (Allyson Ava-Brown). The space created by this cold and unwelcoming set, returned to again and again over the days and weeks in which the play takes place, gives Canaan’s life the feel of being lived out almost entirely in an interrogation room.
Nunnery’s text has precision in the way it dissects the very confusing bureaucracy that surrounds British immigration policy. Where its real strength lies, however, is in the play’s decision not to come down in favour of or against either the British system, or Martha’s final recommendation to her superiors. Rather than take one side of the debate, The Swallowing Dark refuses to be drawn in such simple terms as to support or condemn the action contained within play. Which in turn is mirrored by Martha’s own battle to determine which version of events she is to believe, regarding her younger brothers involvement in some criminal activity.
Both Johnson and Eva-Brown give excellent performances. Eva-Brown’s physical distinction between the young, naive immigration officer simply trying to do her best and Nomsa, a wife living with the man she loves, are subtle but significant. Johnson also switches expertly between past and present: the warm and poetic husband he was, contrasted with the paranoid father he now is, constantly living in fear of the day must return to his tortured past. When the conversation between Martha and Canaan moves to the old stories and traditional folk tales of Zimbabwe and away from Canaan’s application, The Swallowing Dark transcends its office-based reality. Through the language, performances and some innovative staging including a very impressive piece of projection, what could so easily be a dry and overtly political tale becomes something much more powerful.
Paul Robinson’s production is a success in no uncertain terms. In just eighty minutes it manages to shock, provoke and stimulate the mind whilst forcing the audience to engage in a debate not just about human rights, but questions what one person can do for another and the way in which all human interaction should exist.
The Swallowing Dark continues to play at Theatre 503 until the 26th November 2011
Reviewer: Alisdair Hinton