Sunday, 12 April 2015

Review Lampedusa

by Anders Lustgarten

A Trip to Poor Law By-The-Sea

Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa, while craftily inserting slivers of the Italian island’s history, refuses to confine itself to national boundaries but spreads its reach across the globe. 

The one-act 70-minute play of course includes the isle itself, once a  tourist paradise by the Mediterranean, now an over-burdened gateway to Europe for African, Middle Eastern and Asian migrants. Yet the piece also encompasses Leeds in the British Isles, Portugal and the West African former French colony of Mali.

Corporations and even state pension funds with so-called legal personalities as “persons” are allowed to roam the globe in search of greater revenue. But the play charts the sordid tale of the citizens, the human beings, who pay people smugglers to leave their birthplaces in unsafe boats only to drown on Lampedusa’s shores. They may flee conflict, persecution, natural or man-made disasters or seek adventure or to improve their economic lot.  

The play is structured around the monologue of two characters: an Italian fisherman Stephano (Ferdy Roberts) turned either official or unofficial (as far as we could tell, it’s never quite determined which) coast guard, recovering the bodies of drowned migrants, and Denise (Louise Mai Newberry), a half Chinese/half British female payday loan debt collector, apparently taking time off her university studies to earn money, doorstepping those who have reneged on their payments.

How reliable and verifiable what these two say is left hanging. The two stories also intersect but the characters remain apart in their own space. In one, the verdict of an inquest is never revealed, in the other we never know how many of the deaths are even registered, never mind linked to records in their countries of birth. 

Having seen the almost concurrent Shrapnel at The Arcola, TLT and her faithful four-wheeled sidekick are presumptuous enough to think they are beginning to understand how Anders Lustgarten (great name, by the way, for an English guy!) works as a playwright. 

Judging from the two plays, his dialogue, theme and characterisation are carefully balanced – not so much politically as structurally. Character, issues and history are weighed in together giving the plays a distinctive, absorbing style and emotional punch. They lay out concerns and contentions with precision and sometimes a simplicity which, on analysis, may crystallise a nexus of knotty unsolved issues.  At its best, this  provokes and makes us think, whatever one's politics, about the all-too-ominous relevance of the heartbreaking stories behind what would otherwise often be a barely-noticed fleeting headline.

With two monologues almost inevitably sometimes giving  the feel of a radio piece, the play is directed fluently by Steven Atkinson and the audience sits in an extremely effective wooden bench boat-like design by Lucy Osborne circling a mostly-bare stage.. 

And we Sherlockian pair also suspect that like Grounded by George Brant recently at The Gate, this play may need some  detective work from the audience. A digging under face-value statements, incidents  and taking in the resonance of images such as the brief glimpse of a rucksack on the back of a Leeds-based character.

In a world, some would say, thrown into disarray by economic policy, this two-hander struck us as pinpointing a grotesque Dickensian Poor-Law-type haggling between nations over responsibility for citizens. Indeed, we recalled how Charles Dickens pointed out in Oliver Twist, the deception of parish officials almost immediately after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law, when other rules regarding keeping families together clash with the Act’s contractual profit-making agenda.
The play neatly encapsulates two individual stories and a cultural legacy of literature and theories, all of which may have ironically partly led to this strangely modern yet also potentially backward suicidal and murderous situation in this play manacling countries around the world.

It may not suit all tastes, some of the party political jibes felt clunky and the best writing seems reserved for Stephano with his Homeric turn of phrase,  but when a play compels TLT and her automated companion to discuss, debate and, even, God knows ;), argue on the way home, it’s a unanimous green light!

PS UPDATE  It has come to TLT's attention the link to the Charles Dickens' quote on the 1834 Poor Law separation of couples and familes into "individuals", in a legal contortion to fit the paperwork after many families had been deported back to the parishes of their birth, does not come up on those new-fangled devices known as "mobile phones" ;)

One may wonder today what Mr Dickens would have made of political electioneers announcing the "slashing of inheritance tax" for (non mortgaged?) "family homes" in the estates (with otherwise no debts?) of couples (do they both have to die together?) passing to the child (the division between children is not touched upon). It is noticeable the word "couples" was used by Mr Cameron, not parents.  Anyway, the quote in full:  

"They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors' Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor!"

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