by Carole Di Tosti . . .
Currently on BroadwayHD streaming service as part of its April lineup, The Container powerfully captures the emotion of live performance digitally. Written by Clare Bayley the hour-long production presents a harrowing look into what it is like to be a refugee asylum seeker smuggled across Europe in a container truck. Directed by Tom Wright, London’s Young Vic Theater dynamically conveys the atmosphere of panic, fear of discovery and emotional terror in the claustrophobic setting. Strikingly, the company hauled a container outside the theater’s parking lot where it remained for performances, as audience members climbed up the steps to hear the doors slam behind them, unsure of who the mysterious cargo would be.
The audience who was inside in the dark, illuminated only by pin pricks of flashlight, experienced moments of panic as they identified with the superb actors portraying the refugees. After seeing this production, one cannot help but feel differently toward those who seek a better life, after being uprooted and ravaged by war, famine and the death of their families.
The play has an incredible immediacy at the outset when the lorry driver, whom we never see, stops to take in another passenger. The refugees become tense, afraid they are being stopped by police. Mariam, who has made her way from Afghanistan, pays a lot of money to be transported like the others to London. She is the last refugee to be picked up. Initially, those in the container suspect that she has brought in some illness because she vomits and adds to the horrid stench inside of the closed space, which is unfit for human habitation for one hour, let alone three days.
As their human misery augments with her presence, even though she shares her food with the hungry asylum seekers, we learn there is no toilet and little water to drink, let alone wash up and clean the area they designate as their repository for their waste. We are reminded of the Holocaust cattle cars used to transport other refugees to their horrible fate in the death camps during WW II.
However, the difference is these individuals have selected their journey to escape the crises in their own countries. To leave, without official papers and visa entries, they risk grave danger in being returned and killed for escaping illegally. Nevertheless, each considers paying extortionate fees worth the risk, because they would surely die back in their homeland.
During the course of their journey, the playwright introduces us to a dour, selfish “businessman” from Afghanistan, an Aunty and daughter from Somalia and a Turkish Kurd who knows the ropes, having attempted to get into the UK three times before, to join his partner and daughter. The most poignant is the Afghani teacher who lost her teacher husband who was killed by the Taliban, because he dared to teach girls to read and write. Mariam (Amber Agar) explains that after they killed him, they sent her a warning letter and she escaped just in time with the clothes on her back.
The action unfolds in real time which gives the events and interactions a palpable urgency. We are involved and drawn in, as the conflicts arise, and we understand who these refugees are and why they seek out a better life in the UK. We “get” that we may have been like these poor souls in another place and time. Their stories overwhelm, and we stand in their shoes.
The playwright especially fills in the characters Mariam and Asha (Mercy Ojelade) who confide in each other in a conversation that Jemal (Abhin Galeya) overhears. This is a turning point for him as he moves from sardonic bitterness to kindness. Unlike the businessman (Hassani Shapi), Jemal is touched by Mariam and Asha. He especially identifies with the younger Asha who lost her entire family and has visitations from her sister’s ghost. We learn that her Aunt (Doreene Blackstock) exploits her and considers her a burden. Asha, Mariam and Jemel are the most sympathetic characters.
On the last leg of their journey, their fear of discovery intensifies when the Agent (Chris Spyrides) demands more money from each of them or their journey ends before they go across the English Channel via Eurostar. The situation is rife with danger and infighting about lending money to others for the sake of all of them. Ironically, though they least desire this, their destinies are bound together.
This is a must-see production for the superb, heightened and “in-the-moment” acting. Thematically, the employment of the container as the setting, on another level becomes symbolic of all of our lives as refugees on this planet. Whoever we are, there are times when we attempt to travel to safe harbor, sometimes in horrific, fearful conditions whether emotionally or physically.
Kudos to the director Tom Wright for his staging and clever integration of the audience with the actors. Special kudos to Naomi Dawson (designer) and Adrienne Quartly (sound) for making the atmosphere in the container frightening, tense and memorable.
You can see The Container on BroadwayHD the premiere streaming service for theater fans, at this link: https://www.broadwayhd.com/