Tragicomic physical theatre presents the refugee crisis in a whole new light.
Mention the refugee crisis, and comedy probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. Yet, in PSYCHEdelight’s Borderline, director and facilitator Sophie Besse uses it to incredible effect, as she leads a group of refugees and professional actors to share their experiences with heart, humour and physical comedy.
Streaming as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Borderline comprises a series of interrelated sketches and scenes that chart the refugee journey across borders, and the subsequent troubles they encounter upon arriving alone in a new home. Two performers begin singing Bella Ciao, a classic song of resistance and call for freedom, even if it means dying for it, before performers arrive on stage, removing their shoes and contributing to a steadily growing pile.
From here, Borderline takes a deep dive into the absurd and satirical – a man comes out dressed like a thief, and begins to put shoes into a trash bag, as if playing to the impression some countries get of refugees coming to steal their opportunities. The ‘BBC’ features a white interviewer with a translator, as he asks increasingly inane questions to a fleeing refugee, while we hear gunfire in the distance, completely unaware of the urgency and danger and the help he could offer to this man.
Elsewhere, Borderline zooms in on the more tragic aspects of the journey, where only 37 out of an original 70 refugees remain after a gruelling boat ride, their journey depicted as they sit around, listless, while a plastic sheet is waved over them to represent the ocean waves. One of them mentions the ‘perfect president’ of Sudan, another the ‘lovely police’, both in a deadpan tone, while later on, we see refugees’ expressions freezing up when it gets too cold at night.
Police brutality and incompetence also plays heavily into Borderline. A policeman attempts to look for a runaway refugee, only to be duped by the same man he’s looking for putting on an English accent. Two policeman attempt to take away another refugee, one repeating what the other says, but end up being so terrible at their job, that the refugee himself has to instruct them how to pick him up to haul him away. And in one scene, a policeman happily plays with his police dog (played by an actor), and commands him to go sniff out and catch a refugee.
But perhaps most exasperating of all is how they’re treated once they reach the camp (the Calais Jungle), and how ignorant and lacking in empathy some of the volunteers and staff seem to be. A refugee is turned away from the camp as he had previously arrived in another country first, and he threatens to burn his fingerprints off to prevent from being sent back. A volunteer specifically calls out for refugees from specific countries as they are trending, just so she can present them with a song, rather than providing actual aid that can help them. That same volunteer later shares a blunt with another refugee, off-handedly saying “this is just like Glastonbury”, while the refugee replies “is that a camp”, revealing her complete lack of understanding of how serious things are.
The list goes on, whether it’s refugees changing their country of origin to seem more ‘fashionable’, or useless donations that are ‘auctioned’ the moment they are received. But while all of it may seem bleak, because it is treated with such a light touch, it becomes bearable to watch. The trained actors are skilled performers – one of them is particularly impressive with his physical theatre work, pretending to be a rumbling car engine by mimicking its puttering, while as a film, clever film techniques work to support and enhance the experience, whether it’s zooming in to emphasise expressions, or employing almost mockumentary-like filmography to highlight the most awkwardly humourous scenes.
Above all, it is the refugee actors who shine, evidently happy to be there, and putting forth a performance that feels enjoyable and sincere. This is best seen during a ‘fashion show’ segment, when the refugees put on donated clothes, and strut their stuff down the catwalk, so full of colour, so full of life, that you can’t help but see beyond their refugee status and understand that they need to be recognised as fellow complex human beings. And beyond the humour, their genuine want to tell their stories brings out the inherent emotion of the piece; towards the end, we learn about an accident that happens at the fence, and one of the refugees begins to mourn with a sprig of lavender in his hands, singing ABBA’s ‘I Have A Dream’, the lyrics ‘And my destination, makes it worth the while/Pushin’ through the darkness, still another mile’ shockingly relevant to the refugee crisis.
Borderline is deceptively simple in concept, but it is this simplicity that reminds us of how theatre doesn’t need to be complex or performed by stars to leave an emotional impact on audiences. This is a lovingly-devised, well-crafted show, equal parts camp and sobering, a show made by refugees not for us, but for themselves as they work through their difficulties by finding light amidst the darkness. And for us viewers, regardless of where in the world we find ourselves, perhaps all we need to do is remember that we are all fellow human beings, who could use some thought and genuine friendship, to help each other make life a little easier to get through.
Photo Credit: José Farinha
Borderline streams online from 12th to 23rd January 2022 as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. More information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here