“it sometimes feels that they are trying too hard to make up our minds for us”
The fall of the Berlin Wall, over thirty years ago, is still regarded as a momentous event both physically and psychologically. Since then, however, European countries alone have reportedly built over a thousand kilometres of walls along their borders – the equivalent of six times the length of the Berlin Wall. Pan out across the Atlantic and we have the political theatre of Donald Trump’s obsession with his “big beautiful wall” along the US-Mexico border. All very real, but also just as real are the metaphorical walls of bureaucracy that face migrants and asylum seekers across the globe. These are the issues tackled by LegalAliens, a company comprised entirely of migrants in the UK. Fusing poetry with traditional storytelling, movement and multimedia they chronicle humanity’s infatuation with building walls.
“Closed Lands” (translated by Laure Fernandez) is adapted from Simon Grangeat’s short play, ‘Terres Closes’. Grangeat was inspired to write it after witnessing the arrest of the migrant father of one of the children at his daughter’s school. Written as a series of poems from varying points of view, LegalAliens have adopted this format intelligently to avoid the pitfalls of presenting a documentary diatribe. The all-female ensemble – Luiana Bonfim, Daiva Dominyka, Catharina Conte, Becka McFadden and Lara Parmiani – directed by McFadden give voice to the contrasting archetypes, the victims and culprits of the issues surrounding world migration: the politicians, citizens, migrants; the media, the lawyers, the racketeers and resistance. They take turns assuming the various roles while a backdrop of projected news footage fills in the global view.
There are times we feel harangued as all shades of grey are erased from the subject to reveal clear cut, black and white perspectives with no room for debate. Very rapidly we learn the targets of their satire and the subjects of their sympathy, after which the drama – and the humour – becomes somewhat predictable, lessening the potential impact. Where this production is more successful is in its exploration of the figurative walls that are constructed by those with power and that those without are forced to cower behind. In the Western World we (nearly) all rejoiced in the fall of the Berlin Wall, but what is more poignant and powerful is the gradual fall of the invisible wall in people’s minds.
That is the direction LegalAliens is trying to lead us with their thoughtful exposition. But it sometimes feels that they are trying too hard to make up our minds for us. As an audience, we don’t necessarily need converting. However, we do need entertaining, and with its eclectic approach to mixing theatrical styles, “Closed Lands” certainly breaks down the fourth wall to achieve this.
“tackles really important issues that are woefully missing from mainstream discussion”
One of the tests for any fringe production is how it utilises the limitations of its own staging. Some productions fight against the lack of wings, the black floors and the white lighting as if they are projecting the play they wish they could have made. Some, however, take these limitations and use them to their advantage. Body Talk, currently running at VAULT Festival, is one of the latter.
Writer David Hendon and Directors Chris Davis and Sam Luffman use the intimacy and bareness of their stage to mimic an impromptu support group as three men, with wildly different experiences, explore and narrate their relationships to their own bodies and how living as a gay man has impacted that. As they tell their stories, they help each other by playing different parts, weave physically between each other and eventually feature themselves in the narratives. This kind of interweaving does a great job at demonstrating the huge complexity and intersectionality of the issue of gay male body image. The AIDS epidemic meets mental health, isolation from family meets social media and alcohol abuse meets eating disorders. Hendon’s script is clear in its message; that without an open dialogue, the gay community can do each other huge harm as these vectors collide.
However, this is very much a performance led by its issue and tailored to deliver a very specific message. This makes the writing quite hammy at times, with characters delivering some lines that sound more like leaflet slogans than dialogue and occasionally seeming more like archetypes than actual people. The final scenes are particularly dense with this as the moral of the story is driven home far more explicitly than it really had to be, ending on a note not dissimilar from an after school special.
Even the most clanging lines, however, are handled admirably by the three actors. Particular note should be given to Dominic Jones in his role as the closeted Carl, battling an eating disorder whilst hating his ‘skinny’ body. Jones gives a nuanced and intensely moving performance. He hits the comedic notes excellently, especially the more physical comedy as he acts out the parts of the other men’s stories. But even more impressive is the depth he gives the often oversimplified camp of his character. Whereas camp is often played just for the humour or wit that sits on the surface, Jones brings out the tragedy and fragility that is actually embroiled with it. His complete reliance on his best friend Becky and his almost compulsive mentioning of her is an aching example of this and is also a common but underrepresented part of growing up LGBT+.
Body Talk is a script that needs a little more polishing before it can flow seamlessly as a performance. However, it tackles really important issues that are woefully missing from mainstream discussion and does so in a clear, impactful way. These are stories we should be seeing on our stages and the cast are convincing as they start to right that wrong.