Shoreditch Town Hall
When claimant Serge asks his interviewers for a drink of water, he gets a torrent of statements and questions about how else they can help him and how it’s his time to tell his story in his own words. He gets everything except the drink of water he’d repeatedly asked for.
This sequence is one of many summing up the frustrations felt by asylum seekers in Tim Cowbury’s The Claim. Playing at Shoreditch Town Hall, the production is aptly set in an area of London full of incomers from around the world.
Desperate to get help to remain in the UK, Serge (Tonderi Munyevu) goes to A (Nick Blakeley) and B (Indra Ove) at the Home Office but is met with a barrage of questions that seem almost deliberately positioned to miss the vital facts of his case. When he answers them with his version of events, he’s not listened to. Instead every response is a misconstrual of what he said and contrary to the spirit of what was intended.
Did he come from Congo or did he come from Congo to Britain via another African country? Is he sleeping rough now that he is here or does he actually have an address in Streatham? Did he shoot someone as a child or did he merely witness the shooting of someone (that someone, it transpires, was his father). All these are questions never properly answered in the quick-fire dialogue between the three characters that crowd a series of Kafkaesque scenes.
Instead, the interrogators hear the answers they want to infer and which are invariably a notable departure from what was actually said or implied. As an audience member on the same level as this studio space stage, one almost feels compelled to leave one's seat and arrest the bizarre verbal fisticuffs into which the interaction degenerates. Does no-one here possess the common sense or the wherewithal to actually listen to and ascertain what the other person is saying, especially when that other person may well have been someone previously tortured into submission?
The overarching theme of The Claim, which is punctured by absurdity, humour and irony, is the way that systems that are allegedly designed to help the most at risk are essentially self-serving. They operate by placing the asylum seekers into boxes, depicted metaphorically by the bare set of The Claim situated within a confined space. People are either innocent victims fleeing terror from a dictatorship or murderers running away from justice in their own countries. The reality of asylum seekers’ lives is never allowed to be expressed as they’re dragged through endless bureaucratic exercises, rendering the systems they make up cruel and inhuman, even if it’s unintended. It seems the only way a genuine refugee can navigate this maze is to pretend and act a part.
The performances by Tonderi Munyevu, Nick Blakeley and Indra Ove all feel very direct and immediate, but after the 70 minutes running time, the intensity of the back and forth dialogue leaves the audience exhausted and ready for a drink in the bar next door. As a representation of the thousands of unheard voices crushed under the weight of an unwittingly unjust system, though, The Claim is a winner.
Reviewer: Shiroma Silva