Citizen, Suitcase Civilians @ The Space

April 24 – May 5, 2018
Written by Sepy Baghaei & The Company
Directed by Sepy Baghaei

CITIZEN 1

The 25th of March is ANZAC Day, when Australia commemorates its fallen Defense members in past and present wars. This was my first ANZAC Day in London, and I spent the evening watching a documentary about Austrian Jewish children who escaped the Holocaust by fleeing to London and Australia. Their stories were harrowing, and the film ended with these survivors entreating future generations never to let similar atrocities occur. Fast forward to the following night, and I am sitting in the audience at The Space, about to watch a play about dual citizenship and the real, ongoing experiences of persecuted Iranians, including one being held in an Australian detention centre for no reason other than (legally) seeking asylum.

It was the story of this man, Behrouz Boochani’s, which resonated most with me, in this play which weaves between the experiences of a number of Iranian immigrants interviewed by the playwright, the suffering of unjustly incarcerated Iranians such as Boochani and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, and more abstract scenes including a social scene between two Iranian women which the third actor commentated David Attenborough-style, as though it were a wildlife documentary about exotic wild animals. This was not verbatim theatre for the main part, however it seemed to draw quite directly at times from real people’s experiences, and was dedicated to telling their stories. As such, there was no real plot to follow, and at times the action onstage lost momentum somewhat, but overall the various segments flowed together well. This was because they were united by a common theme: the Iranian immigrant experience, with all its grief, humour, passion, and fear on display.

CITIZEN 4

It was a pleasure to go on this journey with the three actors, whose magnetic appeal and versatility of talent guided us in the audience through laughter, tears, anger, shame, and political/ethical quandaries. I was particularly bowled over by Nalân Burgess and her grace and poise, flawless accent work (I thought at first that she genuinely was Australian, then English, then Iranian, then American, then I gave up trying to guess), nightingale singing voice, perfectly nuanced comedic acting, and the sheer amount of stage presence which emanated from her small frame.  David Djemal was almost equally impressive, both in comedic scenes such as the “how to make an Iranian” cooking show segment, and when delivering the sombre, powerful words of Boochani. During these segments I couldn’t help but hear echoes of another man’s story: that of Freddie Knoller, who as a child barely survived Auschwitz and had been interviewed for the documentary I’d seen the previous night. Hunger, humiliation, dehumanisation, and physical and psychological torture – is this going to be Australia’s legacy in the 21st century, as was Austria’s in the 20th?

Many of the perspectives related in this play were those which have been explored countless times before in art about displaced peoples, diasporic culture, and immigrant ethnic identity. However, the way it presents them, interspersed throughout personal stories, comedic skits, political commentary, and beautiful celebrations of Iranian culture and tradition (beautiful and delicious – shoutout to David for rescuing my cup of tea when I nearly dropped it, fumbling after the dates he was offering around the audience) felt fresh and unique. The choice of venue – in a converted church – was also the perfect setting for a play about Islamic people seeking sanctuary in Western countries and having to sacrifice a portion of their cultural identity in exchange. (However, the impressive old building clearly has its drawbacks as a theatre space – technical issues with lighting meant that the show got off to a false start, and needed to reset and begin again from the top about ten minutes in.)

This piece was a wonderfully moving, intelligent, fascinating, confronting, entertaining, and overall multifaceted piece of art. Upon leaving it, I was galvanised into action, emailing and calling my MP in Australia, signing online petitions, and sharing articles about some of the issues referenced in the play. This, to me, is what theatre is at its best: a way to better understand our fellow humans, and also a powerful call to action. Please, make sure you catch it before it ends its run in a week’s time.

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