Where We Began
Stand and Be Counted Theatre
York Theatre Royal
Stand and Be Counted—or SBC for short—is the UK’s first ‘Theatre Company of Sanctuary’. As such, the company is principally concerned with exploring the issues of sanctuary, home and deportation in a lively, thought-provoking way that raises public awareness of the UK’s flawed immigration system.
SBC’s new show, Where We Began, presents us with an eerily credible vision of the future in which every person in the world is forced to return to their country of birth. The drama consists of five interweaving monologues: four from people who have been relocated against their will and one from a UK official also known as a ‘Transition Guide’.
Part of the company’s remit is to give voice to the voiceless people who have endured the cruelty of the UK’s labyrinthine immigration system. In their 2016 production ‘Tanja’, for example, SBC Theatre drew heavily upon the first-hand testimony of Emily Ntshangase-Wood—an asylum seeker from Zimbabwe who lived in Yarl’s Wood, one of the country’s most notorious detention centres.
Where We Began also relies on first-person testimonies, particularly that of 23-year-old Tafadzwa Muchenje. Born in Zimbabwe, he spent his early childhood in South Africa before moving to the UK with his family at the age of ten.
However, since turning 21, Tafadzwa—known as Taf—has lived under the constant threat of deportation. The Home Office wants to send him back to Zimbabwe, despite the fact that his family have been given permission to remain in the UK.
In Where We Began, Taf acts alongside other performers with similar stories of displacement, including the Greek physical performer and singer Zoe Katsilerou who speaks movingly of her attachment to Glasgow.
The five-person ensemble—which also includes Fernanda Mandagará, Rosie MacPherson and Shireen Farkhoy—give strong performances, skilfully balancing humour and pathos.
Tafadzwa Muchenje’s story has figured largely in the press surrounding the show and I must admit that I found it slightly jarring to hear him retell his own story in such a scripted form. Nevertheless he makes his points strongly and he builds a good rapport with the audience.
I was particularly taken with the slippery official played by Shireen Farkhoy, who splendidly embodies the empty rhetoric that floods from many politicians’ mouths on the subjects of asylum and deportation.
The play also benefits from Hannah Sibai’s white-tiled set design, which manages to be both antiseptic and unnerving, and Charlotte Woods’s dynamic lighting.
Issue-raising plays are often noble in intention but lacking in theatrical excitement. In their desire to spread their message, they sometimes forget the essential ingredients of drama. This is not the case with Where We Began, which shines a spotlight on a difficult subject without forgetting to be compelling, entertaining and humane.