Where to Belong

Where to Belong | Theatre

Gareth Smith and Marine Furet offer two perspectives on Victor Esses‘ biographical play, Where to Belong. Smith considers the power of innovative theatre to trailblaze a return to live, while Furet examines the production’s exploration of identity, exile and connection. Read both reviews below. 

Where to Belong makes a convincing case for the necessity of returning to live theatre, both because of its focus on the movement of the physical body in space and because it appeals to the elements of performance that can only truly work with a live audience. In his one-man show, Victor Esses utilises a sparse stage to explore the various facets of his identity and their broader connections to family, nation and history. The concept which shapes the show – belonging – can be stretched to mean almost anything, but the flexibility of the term pushes Where to Belong into numerous, but interlinked, directions. Whether this involves feeling connected to a country that you’ve never visited or to a family that does not offer unconditional love, Esses confronts all the difficulties, as well as the comforts, of belonging. 

Esses is an engaging performer, slowly drawing the audience into his world by tentative engagement. He uses an affable and relaxed persona to introduce some difficult topics, but his sense of humour side-steps any heavy-handedness. In discussing his family, Esses opts for uncompromising honesty, placing their admirable qualities and considerable hardships alongside flaws which make them into complex, and sometimes unlikeable, human beings. 

Where to Belong is a multi-media production. Rather than staying wedded to a microphone, it expresses the vast geographical and cultural diversity of its narrative – which includes Brazil, Lebanon, Israel and the UK – through a kaleidoscopic variety of forms. The use of video clips and audio recordings enhance Esses’ monologue and allows the most impactful stories – such as the account of his mother forced to flee her home during a civil war – to appear more vivid and immediate than might have been achieved by a straightforward retelling. The frequent incorporation of music into the show also allows Esses to demonstrate its power to stir powerful memories – particularly in a dance routine to classic nineties pop which is both entertaining and poignant. 

The disappearance of audience participation in most online theatre during lockdown might be viewed either as a loss or a benefit depending on individual disposition, but it is an essential element of Where to Belong. Esses interacts with the audience as an extension of the ‘belonging’ theme and to cultivate connections and empathy between his own story and ours. At the show’s conclusion, audiences hear their own responses to the questions that Esses has been considering played back to them, providing an opportunity to unsettle the boundary between spectator and performer. Although somewhat effective, it is the final moments of the show which feel a little understated. There is an effective gesture of solidarity, but one which could perhaps be made more powerful and definitive. 

Chapter Arts Theatre is one of the few places in Cardiff that would feature a show like Where to Belong, and it is encouraging to see such innovative performances returning to venues already. It is a reminder that theatre is more than plays and musicals and of the diversity and versatility offered by arts venues which, now more than ever, need support.

Gareth Smith is a regular Wales Arts Review contributor.

Where To Belong
(c) Alex Brenner 

Where to Belong, Victor Esses’s biographical reflection on family, movement, and exile, begins and ends with a bid to his audience: to be seen, to be held, as a non-British, sexual, queer man of colour, across boundaries and countries. The whole performance is a bid for connection that rings true and needed, even on occasions when the jokes don’t quite land. 

The litany of qualifiers – gay, fat, brown, man, cis, able-bodied, privileged – act as coordinates on a map that situates Victor Esses at the margin of some spaces, and, he suggests, at the apex of others. The oscillation between those ways of being labelled, at times against one’s will, makes up one of the threads running through the play, which charts Victor’s life through his and others’ movements across the boundaries of nation-states, continents, political regimes, and identities. 

There is an undeniable timeliness to this script, as Western media seems just about sated with images of the violent changes happening in Afghanistan, soon to be replaced with business as usual – a reminder that as Susan Sontag once put it, ‘No ‘we’ should be taken for granted when the subject is looking at other people’s pain’. Yet, it may be unfair to read Esses’ performance through this lens only: the script itself was released in 2019, and the play has since gone through a run at the Edinburgh Fringe, in Summerhall. All the same, when he breaks character to ask the audience to think of where they would go if they suddenly had to leave their home, the feeling of recognition is unmistakeable. Interacting with your audience can prove risky if no one plays ball but these moments really do pack a punch. They also contribute to driving home a point which I believe plays no small part in my enjoyment of this show in particular: at the risk of sounding a bit naff, is it just me or does Victor Esses seem like a really really kind guy? 

Esses himself has, it seems, only experienced the form of brutal exile he alludes to in a second-hand capacity, through the memory of his mother, a refugee of the Civil War that tore Lebanon apart. Trauma, however, has a way of repeating itself. Esses’s mother story is embedded in the play through a video of Victor filmed by his boyfriend as he is facetiming her from her old apartment in Beirut over 40 years after the fact. His own experience of exile is more subtle, although it led him to move to a different country too. Esses describes his slow estrangement from his family, who won’t accept his homosexuality and refuse to invite his partner to gatherings. In telling us those facts Esses is remarkably collected and restrained, but a quiet sense of anger inhabits this and other similar confessions that have led to his resettlement in London, an ocean away from his parents and siblings, all based in Brazil. Esses does sometime break into song and even, briefly, dance, but never utters an angry word towards his relatives.

The set and performance have a tendency towards minimalism. Esses is wearing a plain tee and trousers, and the props are few and unadorned: a chair, a cardboard box posing as a television on which we watch Esses’s mother and a rendition of Sabah’s ‘Allo Beirut’ in which the singer asks to connect to Beirut—illustrating the play’s underlying suggestions about long-distance connections imperfectly enabled through technologies. Another screen, at the back, displays recordings of the cities where Esses has built his various homes: Beirut, Sao Paolo, London. At another moment in the play, Esses plays recordings from interviews with people from all backgrounds: one of them is an Iraqi refugee, another one a British woman expressing her sense of disconnect towards her own nation after Brexit. It’s a moving moment, but its reach gets lost as Esses moves on to another topic. This is a lot to fit in an hour – too much perhaps? Far from uninspired, it seems Esses’s performance rather suffers from being overcrowded with ideas which it does not quite resolve. This erodes the play’s otherwise tangible grasp on emotions and blunts its edge somewhat. The moments of humour help alleviate what could otherwise become a rather heavy performance, but the jokes take a time to land. By the end of the play, however, we have undeniably warmed up both to the piece and to its writer-performer: Esses brings a genuine warmth and geniality to his play that helps deepen its impact. This was the play’s only night in Cardiff but the performance really is worth catching if you can.

Marine Furet is a regular contributor to Wales Arts Review.