The Black Box Studio in the University of York’s Theatre, Film and TV department was a suitably intimate venue for last night’s performance of 9 Million and Counting: a political documentary trilogy based around the Syrian refugee crisis. Intense and at points gruelling, the pieces successfully created a coherent and hard-hitting evening of theatre.
The three-part show opened with Where The Heart Is, dedicated to the impact that the refugee crisis has had on children: not only those fleeing the Middle East and their experiences both on their journey and on arrival, but also those native to European countries. The striking costumes by Imogen Peddle were particularly noticeable – dresses and tops made from crayon illustrations of houses; they subtly reinforced the question and theme of home, and were touchingly revealed at the end of the play to have been drawn by real children. This subtlety was, unfortunately, not matched by the rest of the piece, however.
The play came with an abruptly clear political agenda that at times was patronising and uncomfortably forceful; whilst a slant cannot necessarily be avoided in such a political form of theatre, it was, regrettably, not as successfully handled as in the later performances. The use of numerical facts to back these points up, again, followed a similar style, to a point where it inevitably became a nonsensical list of digits and left the audience desensitised by the end of the play. Falmata Lawan gave, on the other hand, a beautifully enacted portrayal of a young refugee child; much credit must be given to her for closing piece, in which the documentary aspect of the theatre was most illustrated, with news only hours old being flawlessly incorporated into the final moments. Again, however, this standard was sadly not met by the rest of the cast, where slip ups and over-forced moments left the opening play feeling a little unpolished. Where The Heart Is showed great promise in many aspects, but on the whole fell short of the emotive response it had hoped to achieve. Falmata Lawan gave, on the other hand, a beautifully enacted portrayal of a young refugee child; much credit must be given to her for closing piece.
It was fortunate then, that it was followed by You Were Saying?, a cleverly created and engaging piece. Combining comedic timing – in an authentic, rather than forced manner – and a drastically more politically well-rounded piece, the second play of the political trilogy focused on an interviewer and the different attitudes of ‘the individual’ to the refugee crisis. The credit here must go to the work of the writing team, and Lead Writer Thomas Leadbeater, in their seamless use of interview material and the talent of the cast in their ability to present the conversations in such a genuine and organic way. Indeed, in watching, one would never assume that these were in fact the words and opinions of someone else. The clever self-reflection on the interview process that created all three plays brought the reality of the actors’ – and by association, the reality of the refugees’ – situation to the forefront of people’s minds: a well orchestrated and subtle trick. The use of strobe lighting in the performance was sudden and startling, but reflected well on the chaos and panic of both the situation and opinion circling across the globe in the wake of such a crisis.
Such a well-crafted piece led well into the final part of the documentary theatre, The Swarm. Focused on the media portrayal of the refugee crisis, this play was arguably the most visually complex and impressive of the three. Sean Byrne’s incredible use of projection in the early parts of the play gave a truly professional feel to the small space, and undeniably gave the piece its edge. The drastic switch then, from an abundance of information and presentation to the basic set and lighting of the latter half was incredibly demonstrative of the stark difference between the Western world and that of the Middle East. This was empowered by the emphatic and emotive performances of the entire cast, but especially those of Serena Brymer and Em Barrett, who stole the show. The Swarm not only explored the confusion caused by and within the western media, but underscored the emotional aspects often left aside in the politically-focused turmoil that takes up most of the media space. Sean Byrne’s incredible use of projection in the early parts of the play gave a truly professional feel to the small space, and undeniably gave the piece its edge.
The three pieces worked well together to present the refugee crisis in a unique and informed light. The use of shared material created a complimentary bridge between the performances, even though at times it felt competitive as to who could use it better: Samantha Finlay’s impassioned portrayal of a member of parliament in You Were Saying? was far more impressive than the use of its original recording in Where The Heart Is, for example. It was a shame, to some extent, that all three plays were not equally strong, but the latter two certainly make it worth sticking around through the prolonged breaks in-between plays for set changes.
9 Million and Counting is certainly not for the light-hearted or, indeed, the politically disinterested. For those willing, however, the trilogy provides an evening of hard-hitting and thought provoking performances, cleverly crafted by an exceptionally talented cast and crew.
Showing at the Black Box Studio, University of York 5th – 7th May at 7.30 pm