Life is a beach for refugees and privileged hosts

Brokentalker’s play satirises our response to the influx of people from war-torn countries, writes Alan O’Riordan

GARY Keegan and Feidlim Cannon’s company Broken- talkers have carved out a distinct place in the Irish theatre landscape with shows built around lived experience.

For The Blue Boy, it was the testimony of industrial school survivors; for Silver Stars it was the lives of older gay men; for Have I No Mouth it was Feidlim Cannon’s family history.

The company’s last two shows, however, show them branching out from this sociological work, through the Yeats-infused dance piece The Circus Animals Desertion, and, perhaps even more surprise, an actual play, with characters and everything — This Beach.

The play is Keegan and Cannon’s response to Europe’s migrant crisis, and they began with an idea true to their usual modus operandi. They went to a refugee centre in Spandau, near Berlin, with the idea of talking to the people there about why they had come to Europe. The people in Spandau, though, had other ideas.

“They were kind of clear in saying that those stories were not important to them now,” Keegan recalls. “It was much more important for them to look at the new scenario they were in, as refugees, and how they were managing to survive in a system that considers them sub-citizens in terms of their legal status.”

Keegan calls that meeting “a gift”, rather than a setback — something which fixed the best perspective for them to take on the subject, namely, our own perspective as privileged Europeans.

The resulting play, This Beach, draws its setting from some of the most eloquent and widely seen symbols for the migrant crisis — that of bronzed holidaymakers sharing the Mediterranean sand with migrants arriving in flimsy dinghies.

“That juxtaposition,” he says, “was how it started. This beach then becomes a metaphor for Europe, western civilisation, something the inhabitants feel they need to protect and close off. Beaches are interesting frontier-type lands, if you think of Gallipoli, D-Day: they are the beginning or the end of a thing.”

On the beach, ripe for satire, we find a family personifying various European perspectives on the crisis, ranging from the fascistic and militaristic to well-meaning and fretful.

Perhaps the cruellest portrayal of all is the documentary-making daughter, exploiting the newly arrived refugee for her own purposes.

“That was kind of based on Feidlim and me,” Keegan says. “We wrote that from our point of view, where we arrived in Spandau and said let us illuminate your story with our talent.”

Even if the well-intentioned can’t escape the allegation of exploitation, are we all, then, approaching the migrant crisis in bad faith?

Keegan says he’s a touch less cynical than that. “I think there are lots of people doing good work for the right reasons, but we drew more broad lines for our characters for the purpose of the satire and to highlight some of the hypocrisy, and some of the very despicable viewpoints,” he says.

“On the one hand, yes, you have the artist who is exploiting her subject, but then you also have the xenophobe who really wants them dead. And this has a precedent in Europe as recently as the 1990s if you look at the Balkans. Genocide is not so far in our past, as Europeans.”

There are few more pressing issues facing Europe, and few which seem poised to persist for so long, given the predictions of environmentally-forced dislocation in coming decades. Brokentalkers are certainly not aiming to provide any easy answers.

The piece, Keegan says, is designed to highlight certain realities. “All it’s doing is trying to show some of the hypocrisies and some of the ironies around white Western privilege. This fact that we feel, somehow, that our lives are worth more than other people’s lives. It’s not trying to solve problems, it is setting out the problem and letting people think about it and maybe consider where they fit into it.”

  • This Beach is at the Everyman, Cork, from November 27-29


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