By Iman Hakimi, Communications Volunteer
The one-word simplicity that Lindsey Rodden has chosen for the title of her latest production – ‘HERE’ – conjures questions around place, belonging and location even before the play springs into action. At surface level, ‘HERE’ is an estate in Byker, an urban, working-class district in Newcastle. ‘HERE’ is a library which doubles as a refuge for four lonely and displaced characters: Lulja, a teenage asylum seeker from Albania; Pauline, an Angolan refugee; Janet, a Scottish librarian returning to her Geordie roots; and Salim, a Kurdish refugee whose dialogue echoes the poignancy of his idol’s, the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish
As a co-production between Curious Monkey, Northern Stage and Newcastle University, ‘HERE’ reflects Curious Monkey’s mission to transform the stories of marginalised communities into innovative theatre which is rooted in the experiences of their casts.
Joana Geronimo imbues her performance as Pauline with her own lived experiences as a refugee. Escaping bloody civil unrest in Angola, Joana resettled in Newcastle in 2003 at the age of sixteen. Arieta Visoka’s performance as Lulja is also personally inflected: Arieta arrived in the UK aged two with her parents as Kosovan refugees.
The play developed from Curious Monkey’s ‘Arriving Project’: a social hub and creative enterprise for people seeking sanctuary in the Northeast of England to make theatre, take dance classes and to write. Workshopping with and listening to the stories of sanctuary seekers from around the world was the driving force in the scriptwriting and production of ‘HERE’ for Lindsey Rodden and Amy Golding (director).
As one of eight Theatre Companies of Sanctuary across the UK, Curious Monkey’s artistic intentions are translated into scenes in ‘HERE’ which stress the necessity of hospitality.
Beaten down by relentless official questioning during her application for asylum, Lulja launches into a confrontational monologue: “You want to hear my story, solicitor? HO man? Here, listen.” She invents a story of a lone mountain woman as a riposte to demands for her to define herself: “He asks how come my passport? How come no doctor? I give him nothing.” Mindful of the Home Office’s hostile framing of refugee narratives, Lulja protects her story. Through Arieta Visoka’s arresting delivery, this scene shows that treating refugees and asylum seekers with suspicion instead of hospitality only precludes the growth of community and human connection that sharing stories with one another – of our pasts, our multiple homes, our customs – can bring.
Murat Erkek, as Salim, gives the most enchanting performance. Like Lulja, Salim reflects on how the malleability of his story makes his life ‘here’ precarious. While hosting Janet for tea, Salim laments that his story is “not substance, but clouds.” Adrift from Kurdistan, he is conscious that narratives of his homeland and of his presence ‘here’ are in a constant state of formation and transition, like clouds. Through confiding in each other, Salim and Janet are hospitable towards each other’s journeys.
Congregating at the library, the four characters are attuned to the power of storytelling and the community it inspires. The friendships they form through making space for each other’s stories present a timely message: we are at the threshold of new connections when we are hospitable towards one another.
Amidst the UK government’s insidious offshoring schemes, this reminder is pertinent. ‘HERE’ and the work that Curious Monkey are doing will surely inspire more art which fosters communal responsibility and more theatre as sanctuary.