How to improvise with refugees

Borderline, a new play by Sophie Besse about - and with a cast of - refugees represents an ideal of being together

Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
22 October 2016

The Five Bells on New Cross Road, the rehearsal room above the pub where a huge screen is showing football to a few Sunday lunchers. When I walk into the rehearsal rooms above, Remy is teaching the young & eager group of 12 about improvisation - there are two young women, the rest are men and boys. They’re smart, comfortable together, speaking lots of languages. A pretty standard young London crowd in a way.

“Someone starts - anyone. With some theme in mind. Then you can do one of three things: 1. either join them, do something that’s broadly the same, add to their volume and their voice; or, 2, you do something different - but just a bit different; something in harmony; or, 3, you give them something to push against, something different, but something that can be built on - that’s counterpoint. Now,” he continues, “you’re going to show me - you’re going to make a … what do you call it … that machine that makes electricity … a generator”.

Mohammad - a young Sudanese man - steps out from the assembled group and goes down on one knee; his arms turn rhythmically, like a piston. A few seconds later, Basel, tall, with beard, glasses and a square jaw, places himself as a mirror image of Mohammad; he makes the same movements. They remind me of the big flat twin engine I had on an old-fashioned BMW motorbike many years ago. Emily, straight out of a fashion magazine, tom-boy hair jet black with short points coming in front of her ears, comes forward to start making a rhythmic sputtering sound … and so it goes, the engine gets more and more complicated, but each seems to be making a contribution to the operation of the whole thing. Remy watches and lets it run, mechanically, for 30 seconds.

“OK. Stop. There was one thing I didn’t say. You can do those 3 things - the same, the different, and the counter - and you did that. Good. But also, you shouldn’t let anyone stay alone. YY - he was making the noise of the exhaust … but no one supported him. No one thought how they could do the same, or slightly different, or give him counterpoint. You left him alone. Now do it again. Let yourself be free in your heart; experiment; keep to the three rules; but if someone is left alone, do something for them …”

Left alone … do something for them … Well, already this was getting poignant. Because Remy’s improvisation students, assembled by Sophie Besse for her new show, “Borderline”, had up until pretty recently been left very alone. They are refugees (7 of them, 2 Sudanees, 2 Syrians, 2 unaccompanied children aged 16y and 17y  from Afghanistan and one Palestinian refugee who spent all his life in Syria) who’ve made it to Britain. Most of them have come quite recently from Calais’s Jungle, and before that from the hell that their home has become. Acting alongside them are men and women from England, France, Wales and Chile.

Why were they here, on a Sunday, above a pub in South East London, miming being a generator? Because “Borderline” is a play about the refugees’ journey, and life in the camps themselves.

While the group was putting Remy’s instructions into practice, my thoughts were much more cliched than the spectacle. His three ways of joining represent a sort of humanistic ideal: work out how you can complement what each is freely doing; have an eye to what we’re all jointly making; and look out to see if anyone needs support. The improvisation ensemble becomes the ideal for society as a whole, that elusive marriage of freedom, equality and collectivity. And by miming a machine, you’re reminded that the cold and methodical mechanical contraption is itself a human artefact, made of human desires and brought together by much human coordination, by something shared rather than by a spooky invisible hand. And this, I say to myself, is just the kind of thing that a Sunday - the day of rest, the day for reflecting on what we try to be as a community - should be spent on: a way of bringing in the newcomers amongst us, used to very different conceptions of being together, to a view of how our way could, at its best, actually work. A lesson, not for “them”, but for all of us on how we can it work.

Sophie then stepped forward and asked the actors to do the motorway/fence scene. They interlock arms and legs while standing straight as posts. She asks them to put their fingers out, as if they’re razor wire. The fence stands erect along a back wall, facing the audience. And then, one after another, the faces turn and pass on to their neighbour the sound of a whizzing car or trundling lorry, the sound a sort of object handed along the chain. The fence watches the lorries going to England, and behind the fence, their eager faces showing above the barbed wire, the camp-dwellers wish the fence that they’ve become weren’t there. The fence is made of human flesh - a barrier of interlocking arms. Hands have become - and made - razor wire.  The faces are the faces of the refugees; real ones, not actors. And somehow, these young people caught one of those juggernauts across. Enayat came from Afghanistan. Not in the play - in reality. And he did go under a lorry. He tells me that Iran and Bulgaria were the worst … it was the dogs that the police used that really frightened him. Translating for him as well as acting is Naqeeb, impeccably dressed, calm, inquisitive - “I was very lucky. I arrived from Afghanistan by plane”, he tells me. But in other ways not so lucky: he speaks four languages, and was working as a translator for journalists … so the Taliban were out to stop him. He had to flee. He says he wants to be a banker: he loves economics, bankers’ clothes and their hairstyles.

Over lunch of hummus and dried fruit, in a circle on the ground, I ask Baraa, a young, elegant man from Syria, a refugee as well, who does a lot of the translating for the arabic-only speakers, what difference the miming makes to the show. “When we become the fence, we understand the world as the fence … but we are also, at the same time, held in by the fence,” he says.

Sophie’s creation plays on all these levels: the actors are objects; the objects are human-made; the actors are refugees; the refugees are actors; the refugees are human-made. There’s a pile of discarded shoes in the middle of the stage. White leather thigh boots with great platform soles in what must be a size 11 … just what a refugee would need in the camp for a bit of cross-dressing fun. Except that’s exactly what happened. We emptied our cupboards and donated anything, often with little regard to what might conceivably be useful. Karim tells me that there was sexy lingerie in piles at the camp, too. So, one day, they organised a fashion show.

They took the absurdity of what we were doing and turned it into a spectacle. Which is what Sophie is doing all over again with them here. She creates moving metaphorical tableaux of the journey, the smuggler, the people who had to be abandoned, the fear and hope of everyday. The actors sing in Arabic, or Sudanese or Pashtun as they form a weary caravan plodding, battling the headwinds, escaping violence, driven to where they hear that things might just be better… The shoes stand for all the refugees. Some of them fall by the wayside, are separated from their pairs, cannot be picked up without dropping several others. Just a very few make it to the Jungle… and fewer yet to Britain.

Sophie Besse is a Frenchwoman in London who runs a theatre company, PSYCHEdelight. She has been a regular visitor to the Jungle where she has run theatre workshops (she has written regularly for openDemocracy about her visits there). Her last play was very personal, a tragi-comedy about fertility and adoption. A bi-cultural couple is torn apart by biologically fated childlessness. But love through adoption - overcoming the unacceptable “given” order of things - turns the tragedy around into a story of hope and love. I can’t help thinking that this is what Sophie is doing again: out of the trauma of the experiences of her actors, out of the unacceptability of the “given” way we’ve treated them, she wants theatre to transform the story to one of love and hope.

I ask the refugee-actors what the play means to them. It’s hard to tell and I it’s hard to pry. I remember the few productions I have been involved in - the sense of purpose, camaraderie, achievement; the intimate sense of familiarity with a part or a playwright; the adrenalin of performance and its anticipation. And the bonds it forms between all those involved. Sophie tells me that she was shocked when Monand told her that he misses Calais. No one to talk to in Bradford. Calais was hell but there was camaraderie. There were NGO helpers who cared and tried to help. They’ve got to England now … but they feel lost. In the camp, they had made something that was their own. Sophie is providing them with a glimpse that caring, connection camaraderie and self-creation are possible again here, even outside a self-made encampment.

This doesn’t make the play something that is for them rather than for us. Like one of those wonderful mimed machines that Remy has them perform, the whole spectacle shows us our place in their story, our role in the human construction that is this crisis.



Borderline is showing at The Cockpit on November 2nd, 3rd and 6th. It is a co-production by PSYCHE-Delight and The Cockpit. It is sponsored by Syren Associates. 


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