The Time of the Tortoise

Kersten Specht, translated by Rachael McGill
Theatre 503
(2006)

Publicity image

It was with some trepidation that I waited for a show, described in its own publicity as "a twisted love story set in a compost heap", to begin.

The stage is already set and it does indeed, thanks to design by Rosemary Flegg, look like a grimy, unpleasant compost heap. Dust whirls around and there are two bodies lying on broken boxes under plastic sheets. These turn out to be two illegal immigrants: Sami (played by Harry Kent) and Ali (William El-Gardi), who have been shot by police when a drugs deal goes wrong. A chorus of three actors whirl on as photographers and journalists, desperate to get a story; the proverbial flies around a compost heap.

The two dead men were agricultural workers in an unspecified European country. This is likely to be Germany, the home-turf of writer Kerstin Specht, but it could be anywhere. Anonymous and reviled in life, by the end of the play they have become martyrs, the catalyst for civil unrest heralded by marches and riots.

Specht's play is ambitious in scope and deals with the burning issue of how immigrants are viewed and treated by the affluent societies into which they come. The greenhouses in which Sami and Ali are forced to work (and eventually die) are a metaphor for the pressure-cooker conditions they live under. Elgiva Field's direction responds well to the text. She creates the impression of a stifling world that is ready to explode at any moment. The chorus of three actors are well-used, switching easily from journalists to natives who are unhappy about the influx of immigrants.

But it isn't all unremitting gloom. Rachael McGill's translation gives adequate light and shade to the play, pointing up Specht's use of black humour and unpleasant surprises: when contemplating the good points of death Sami and Ali conclude that at least there can be no more testicular cancer, fatal accidents, tuberculosis or in-growing toenails.

One the whole, Specht's writing felt more effective when dealing with the big issues than with the intimate relationship between the two main characters. The introduction of Sami's girlfriend (Lara Agar-Stoby) and Ali's lover Ulu (Sidney Smith) seemed to take away from the depth of their relationship, rather than add to it. Consequently Sami's climactic admission that he had betrayed his friend didn't quite have the impact it deserved. Harry Kent's gave a sympathetic portrayal of Sami though at times he was a little laid-back for the situation. William El-Gardi's Ali was more effective as the angry immigrant determined to break out of the hopeless situation, whatever the cost.

Imogen Smith gave a bright performance as Sami's long-suffering Mother who arrived to take her son's body home, via a wheelbarrow. Far from a downtrodden woman in a strange place, she counfounds our expectations. With more of Specht's black humour, she proves to be a capable survivor, who summarily captures and eats birds rather than starve.

Theatre503's production provides an unusual take on a very topical and engrossing subject and will appeal to anyone who is intrigued by the social questions surrounding immigration.

Reviewer: Bronagh Taggart