A play inspired by a trip to the “Calais jungle” asylum-seekers camp on the French coast. A comedy about Aladdin fleeing Europe for a better future, featuring puppetry and yodelling. A performance by eight young refugees about their experience of finding a home in Britain.
Every August, themes tend to emerge at the Edinburgh Festival, which includes more than 3,000 performances at The Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the 750-plus events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and three weeks of world premieres in the main Edinburgh International Festival.
This year, one such theme is refugees. Theatre groups, comedians, choreographers and authors are drawing inspiration from the stories of displaced people, whether in small boats in the Mediterranean, Palestinian camps or a detention centre in the United Kingdom.
The Other, written and performed by Gaël Le Cornec, is about a young woman from another planet searching for a new home. But the out-of-this-world premise was inspired by a more down-to-Earth encounter and some solid research.
“The seed idea came when I talked to my flatmate’s girlfriend, who had been sent to an immigration removal centre,” says the French-Brazilian performer. “She was staying in my flat but I had no idea what she had been through.
“One evening, she shared her story. It made me curious to research more about the immigration system in France and the UK. So I talked to people, got in touch with different organisations, read every single article about the current crisis, revisited history – and revisited myself.”
Le Cornec says her personal experience of alienation is crucial to her understanding of the subject.
“Displacement is a theme that always appears in my plays, maybe because, being French-Brazilian, I’ve experienced displacement from my tender years,” she says.
At the Book Festival, meanwhile, a strand titled “In Search of a Refuge” will feature talks from refugees offering personal accounts of their experiences.
But poets and novelists are also creating fictional works exploring the issue.
Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan will present his novella Describing the Past, while Lebanese novelist Nada Awar Jarrar will discuss An Unsafe Haven, about a woman who encounters a Syrian refugee.
This balance between fact and fiction is a delicate one. It was important to Le Cornec, for example, that her experiences, and those of others, liberated rather than restricted The Other.
“I didn’t want to write a verbatim piece,” she says. “The Other is a fictional story about a young girl forced to leave her red-yellow planet to find refuge somewhere else – the beautiful blue planet.
“The set-up makes for a universal story of migration, which is also my story as a girl, born in the Amazon, migrating to Europe without speaking the language.
“Art enables us to go beyond reality, to reimagine, deconstruct, distort, fantasise, to create a thing of beauty, a unique shared experience between people.”
Asleik Engmark, the Norwegian co-writer and performer of Aladdin and His Magical Europe Refugee Tour 2016, traces this creative path from veracity to fiction.
About the comedy that will debut at the Fringe, he says: “In the beginning of the process, we [Engmark and his co-creator, musician Jon Rormark] were so scared of not telling the correct story, we went through tons of articles, statistics and documentaries.
“We talked to refugees, Red Cross officials, Middle East experts, social anthropologists, taxi drivers and to our inner fear. We rewrote the play four times. Now we are slowly realising our story is about different human feelings. Most of them exist inside all of us, and that’s where our final material comes from.”
The refugee crisis is a tragedy, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be explored with humour. Aladdin has lots of laughs. Le Cornec describes The Other as “darkly comic”.
“I always try to find space for humour in the darkest stories, somehow. It helps us all – the author, the characters, the audience – to endure the sadness,” says Le Cornec.
These works inspired by refugees seek to produce a powerful effect on those who see it beyond mere entertainment.
“I want to offer the audience a new way of looking at the world, of looking at others and of thinking before judging a stranger,” Le Cornec adds. “That person is just like me, that person also suffered, they are doing their best to survive.”
Source: art & life