Refugee crisis at the heart of political play

Refugees continue to flee to Europe from war in Iraq and Syria (image/Wikimedia Commons)

Playwright Angie Farrow

How much responsibility should we all take for the unfolding global refugee crisis? It’s an urgent issue at the heart of a new play by a Massey playwright whose work asks: what role can theatre play in individual consciousness-raising or social change, on stage and off?

Titled The Politician’s Wife, the full-length play by Associate Professor Angie Farrow – an international award-winning playwright based at Massey’s Manawatū campus – will debut at Palmerston North’s Centrepoint Theatre mid-June and at Wellington’s BATS Theatre at the end of June.

It is one of three political plays featured in Centrepoint Theatre’s ‘Plays With a Purpose’ season, launched on Amnesty International Day, May 28, and includes plays from Iran and Britain. All deal with two strands of discussion: political oppression and the issue of displaced refugees, and how much responsibility we have to care for those who have no home.

More than one million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe in 2015. In the latest tragedy, an estimated 700 refugees were feared drowned off the coast of Italy this week. Dr Farrow says there’s a tendency for people to feel overwhelmed to the point of apathy by the sheer scale of the problem, which has been in the headlines for some time.

Play shows refugee crisis in a new light

“Like many of us, I’ve been deeply affected by the refugee crisis,” says Dr Farrow. “Sometimes it has seemed overwhelming: watching nightly news bulletins of stranded asylum seekers, trying to make sense of a catastrophe, the scale of which has been beyond comprehension. I ask myself: ‘What can be done? What can I do?’”

She says that since she began writing the play in 2014 there has been a significant shift. “From a story that seemed to be a long way away – somebody else’s problem – the refugee story has become part of all of our lives. I hope this play will help us see the refugee crisis in a whole new light.”

The heart-breaking image of a policeman holding the dead body of a drowned Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach last year that went viral finally brought home the tragedy to many and sparked a shift in awareness about the need to help, says Dr Farrow. “That image was so powerful,” she says. “Suddenly, refugees were no longer statistics – they were real people, with families.”

Witnessing refugees' plight close up

Dr Farrow, who teaches in the School of English and Media Studies, had been in Berlin the year before on a writer’s residency, at a time when the refugee crisis was reaching new levels as people escaped conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Being there brought her into contact with the unfolding events, and with some of the refugees as well as those who were helping them. She also witnessed the fear and resentment of some in host countries in reaction to a sudden, large influx of desperate people with different religious and cultural backgrounds.

The desire to explore the issue from multiple perspectives inspired her to write the play. However, translating such an emotionally and logistically complex issue into a piece of theatre forced her to think about what it might mean on an individual, as well as political, level.

Shortlisted for the 2016 Adam NZ Play Award, The Politician's Wife is an unapologetic response to the global refugee crisis, which has dominated headlines and divided the world.

The play centres on Kim, a woman of privilege – the eponymous politician’s wife – who becomes caught up in the refugee crisis, which – in the play – is not accorded a specific geographic or ethnic label. Torn between her loyalties to her conservative husband and her desire to help displaced people on an offshore island, Kim finds herself unwittingly at the centre of a national scandal. As the drama unfolds, she must take a stance, and the consequences could throw her life, and the lives of those closest to her, into turmoil.

Director Stephen Bain says of the play: “It reads like one of those great Netflix series where you’re constantly wanting to find out what happens next. I’ve always thought the best political dramas creep up on you and don’t reveal their cards right away. The Politician’s Wife takes on big ideas without ever bashing you on the head with them.”

‘Plays with a Purpose’ is a grassroots initiative aiming to engage the Manawatū community in a conversation about what theatre can actually achieve, says Nathan Mudge, Centrepoint Theatre’s associate director.

The opening play, White Rabbit Red Rabbit, by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour, is top secret. A new actor performs it each night having never seen the script. In Lampedusa, North Africa meets Rome. Stefano follows in the footsteps of generations of fishermen. But in the twenty-first century, his job is to pull drowned bodies of migrants out of the Mediterranean.

Plays With a Purpose at Centrepoint Theatre:

White Rabbit Red Rabbit | May 28 – June 11

The Politician’s Wife | June 15 – 10

Lampedusa | June 25 – 26

(Bookings and information here.)

The Politician’s Wife is at BATS Theatre from June 22 to July 2.

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