FREEDOM PROJECT

Bramall Rock Void, Leeds Playhouse

Written by Luke Barnes

Directed by Alexander Ferris

Reflecting on Freedom Project and the issues and conversations it raises I found myself thinking why do we call children seeking a new home here refugees? Why are we not seeing them for who they actually are? They are simply children requiring support, nurture and safeguarding. Why do we have such differing perspectives on refugees than on evacuees? Is it because one is seen as voluntary and the other as forced? Surely both have a commonality in the driving issue being a removal from danger? This country saw around 2 million children evacuated during WW2 in Operation Pied Piper. Children were moved out of the cities to rural Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. I imagine we wanted them to be safe, nurtured, educated and valued. Fast forward 80 years to now and refugee children arriving in Britain are met with uncertain welcomes, interrogations, pupil referral units, police searches and housed in hostels if they don’t “look” like children.  These are just a few of the thoughts that came from watching Freedom Project.

This production was originally scheduled for 2020 but was delayed due to Covid. Perhaps it is even more timely showing now, mere weeks after events in Afghanistan led to the heart-rending scenes at Kabul airport. Written by Luke Barnes in response to dialogue with young people seeking asylum in London and Leeds, this piece gives a vital voice to those whose lived experience is to dream of reaching  safety but discover the reality is often very different. Perhaps one of the most potent memories from this show is the warm and very personal welcome that audience members are greeted with on arrival. The actors in this two-hander welcome us into the space with friendly confidence and yet these two young men who will perform as 15 year old refugees have been refugees themselves. The dialogue could easily be their own truth and therefore their friendliness is all the more potent and meaningful. Leeds Playhouse was the first theatre in Britain to create a Theatre of Sanctuary for Refugees and people seeking asylum in 2014. Actors Mohammadreza Bazarbashi and Hossein Ahmadi have established relationships here and this has been a space to foster supportive relationships and assist budding actors to establish careers and learning opportunities.

The traverse staging works really well creating both an intimacy as the actors can get close up to engage with the audience. Having the audience facing each other accross the stage also serves to remind us of the opposing factions that lead to so many refugeed fleeing their homes. Designer Katie Scott has created a set with the feel of a disused playground or skateboard park. This allows for loads of movement in this energetic piece and allows the young actors to be children as they leapfrog, slide or just hang out chatting. The overhead fluttering  canopy of tent fragments is a stark nod to the tents at Calais and elsewhere.

Both actors exude charm and are extremely engaging. Luke Barnes ensures that the writing tells a hard hitting story but at its heart is warmth and compassion. Their journey of arriving in Britain with nothing but second hand clothing, no identification and little English is terrifying yet it also tells of the hopes they have arriving here…we came to England because it’s the best. It has the best schools, the best jobs, the most money…the best films, football and music. The tragedy enfolds as the smalls acts of human kindness these boys receive is outweighed by the callous nature of bureaucracy that asks children to relive the horrors they have escaped without any adequate safeguarding or support in place.

This is important storytelling. It would be so easy to be comfortably assured that once refugee children arrive that they are supported and placed in secure, welcoming foster homes. Freedom Project is an important reminder that children fleeing may have no documentation and therefore can fall through the cracks ending up in unsuitable hostels and denied appropriate education opportunities. Without the right support these young people can lose their optimism for the future and we therefore lose all their potential too. We risk harnessing bitterness and despair when we could be nurturing hope and positivity. We love England. Despite what it did to our home.

Leeds Playhouse 10th-18th September 2021

Leeds Playhouse Theatre of Sanctuary

ROSE

HOME, Manchester

 

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Written by Martin Sherman

Directed by Richard Beecham

Performed by Janet Suzman

The curtain goes back to reveal a simple wooden bench on which a dimly lit Suzman sits. She informs us that she sitting Shiva. As she sits, we sit. As she speaks we listen. Stillness fills the main theatre space at HOME.  Suzman as Rose commands the stage alone for over 2 hours, and is mesmerizing

Rose is simply one voice and one story picked out and told from a history of displaced people all across the World and all through History. The potency of that one voice telling one story ensures that it feels impossible not to focus and engage. There are no distractions other than subtle touches of music and a beautifully simple  moodscape of  shifting colours as a backdrop.

The first half focuses on Roses early life with her family and her first marriage to the love of her life and the subsequent birth of her daughter Esther. The images of family life and lilac trees and smooth chested men is rich and evocative. As the story moves from  the ‘shtetls’ of Eastern Europe into Nazi occupied Warsaw the memories fragment as the horrors of the ghetto permeate her life.

The second act opens with the stage now filled with benches to sit Shiva. The result is haunting, so many benches for so many dead. The stark white simplicity is reminiscent of the rows of simple crosses marking the graves of  the war dead in so many cemeteries.

Rose is now a business woman, married with a son and speaking with the accent of her adopted country. She speaks of her life in America and the choices she makes about what she recalls and what she suppresses from past memories. Her son and grandchildren continue the theme of displacement and the battle to forge a new nations identity. Her journey from the ill fated Exodus ship and the bright hope of a homeland is tainted by later events in Israel and Palestine. “The milk was slightly sour, the honey a bit tart.”

This is a beautifully crafted script by Martin Sherman and is skilfully directed by Richard Beecham to ensure that Rose is vital and real. The play avoids the stereotypes of Jewish mothers and tells a story from 20th Century history without preaching.  The star of the show is of course Rose and rightly so, Janet Suzman is astounding as this warm yet brittle and wounded survivor. Her performance is subtle and understated but every look and movement is exact and illuminates Rose with depth and clarity.

History repeats itself and Rose has observed a century of the ebb and flow of peoples and their religions and cultures. It is timely that in the 21st Century we are revisiting this play as refugees flee their homes and seek uncertain welcomes and futures elsewhere.

At HOME until 10th June