National Theatre Wales
Newport, Bristol and online
Created by John Norton & Matthew Wright
A group of theatre-gamers sit crammed together inside a people-carrier parked on a cold, rain-swept Newport back-street. The driver assures us that we’ve arrived at a ‘safe place’. We tentatively enter an anonymous rear-entrance of a large building and are shepherded into a dimly-lit room, where we are met with the slightly bemused faces of a dozen asylum-seekers and the wafting aroma of beef stew. We have made a modest thirty-mile trip as part of Bordergame – an immersive theatre experience that’s included a code-word encounter with a ‘coyote’ on a Bristol street-corner, and a brief interrogation from a shadowy people-trafficker in the back of a van. At the conclusion of our journey we now find those who, in reality, have faced real peril and travelled great distances to find themselves in Wales, supported by meagre financial assistance from the authorities while their cases await processing.
The stew is served with sliced bread. Mugs of hot tea are handed out. A card-game is improvised in the middle of the room, while around its fringes conversations break out between theatre-gamers and asylum seekers. This review opens at this point of exchange, which comes near the end of the ‘performance’, because the value of playing Bordergame lies not in playing the game at all, but rather in this opportunity to meet several rather ordinary people who have each done extraordinary things simply to win the chance of leading a reasonably comfortable life in our blessedly peaceful country. Within fifteen minutes of talking with a former basketball player from Iran and a young Syrian who has fled the ravages of civil war, all assumptions – even those of a progressive liberal – regarding the motivations and experiences of asylum-seekers are made to seem rather shallow – as indeed does the whole gaming aspect of this National Theatre Wales production in retrospect.
Earlier this year, Bordergame won the inaugural Space Prize, receiving £20,000 for the development of innovation in the field of digital theatre. One can appreciate how the aim of fusing the aesthetics of digital gaming and the dynamics of immersive theatre made Bordergame an attractive proposition to the judging panel, especially as the project will undoubtedly attract a youthful demographic to theatre, either as online gamers or audience members, or both. And what better pretext could there be for engaging with younger audiences, than subject matter that is becoming increasingly contentious as next year’s General Election looms and all political parties sink themselves lower to stem the haemorrhaging of voters to UKIP? Strangely enough, while the game of trying to acquire medical papers, legal tender and relevant documents actually proved to be quite fun, it was the sedate, old-fashioned method of sitting down with real asylum-seekers over a cup of tea that proved to be most revelatory and uplifting aspect of the experience.
Co-creators John Norton and Matt Wright create a convincing environment for both online gamers and audience members. Bordergame is certainly an impressive operation in terms of its logistics, from the creation of a convincing border security web-presence to the manufacture of realistic ID cards, to the clockwork timing of its cast, who work at a number of sites with impressive precision. There was a moment when, waiting for the return train back to Newport, we were suddenly informed of a platform alteration, and we all wondered aloud for a second if Arriva Trains had been co-opted into the game. What this production did not provide, however, was any palpable sense of danger, which is obviously an intrinsic part of the real-life experiences of people trafficking and illegal migration. The stakes throughout Bordergame are extremely low – the very worst that might happen to any audience member is some mild public embarrassment at the hands of an actor’s improvisation. The absence of danger is this production’s fatal flaw, and it’s only somewhat redeemed by the stories told by the real asylum-seekers.
Regarding these stories, John Norton is quoted in an interview with the Western Mail as saying:
Asylum cases are judged the world over by the stories the travellers tell about themselves. It seems that it’s not as important that the story is true as it is important that the listener believes it is true – which is the same as in theatre.
This notion that the fates of individual asylum-seekers are determined by the plausibility and power of their narratives is an intriguing one, but, rather frustratingly, it is not fully explored in Bordergame. Explaining just how asylum-seeker narratives are constructed and received might have provided some much needed dramatic heft to the audience experience. Instead, we were provided with a book in preparation for a citizenship test that never came, and were played audio testimonies from asylum-seekers over mobile phones that were frequently interrupted by signal breakdowns. If gamers had been tasked with learning the narrative of an asylum-seeker in detail and then recounting it at some later point, a more challenging mission target might have been set and a deeper sense of empathy evoked.
As I walked through the cold November night, back to my home in Newport, it was not the discomfort of sitting in a dingy transit van, nor the shouty cod-officiousness of a fake police officer that haunted me. Rather it was the realisation that for many of the asylum-seekers I had just met an immediate return home might pose the threat of imprisonment, possibly torture and even death. Even if their best case scenario – the granting of asylum – were to transpire, their journey toward the better life they’re seeking for themselves and their families is going to be a long and extremely difficult one, involving hard work and great personal sacrifice.
National Theatre Wales must be commended for having the good sense to conclude Bordergame with the involvement of asylum-seekers. Director John Norton is clearly sensitive to the danger of the playful aspects of the game potentially trivialising the hardships faced by all political and economic migrants, and he is well-served by project coordinators Rhiannon White and Christina Handke who facilitate a warm and relaxed atmosphere during the production’s conclusion without any hint of condescension or exploitation.
Bordergame has the strengths and weaknesses of many National Theatre Wales productions. It is imbued with a ludic delight in the possibilities of reinventing theatrical form, and demonstrates a purposeful engagement with a marginalised community in Wales, so that some of those who lack a voice in our society are given an occasion to speak. What is sadly lacking, however, is any penetrating analysis of its subject matter, or intellectual rigour in terms of allying its formal experimentation with having something new or insightful to say.
Photo Courtesy of Farrows Creative / National Theatre Wales