The themes of migration and the search for a safe home appear throughout Dido, Queen of Carthage. Dido herself was an exile arguably looking for political asylum from the wrath of King Pygmalion. In our production, opening at the Swan Theatre on 15 September, I play Sergestus, another refugee in exile; this time a Trojan who spends seven years on the Mediterranean sea trying to find Italy with his band of brothers and our hero Aeneas. Italy for the Trojans represents destiny. The fate of Western civilisation is dependent on them delivering the precious cargo of Aeneas’s son, prophesied by the gods to found the Roman Empire. But Italy also represents a new home after the fall of Troy, the Promised Land after the bloodshed of war. A new hope.
Today when we hear of epic Mediterranean voyages involving migrants from politically unstable or war-torn countries, we don’t think of 20 BC. Rather, we think of what has been described as the 21st century’s largest wave of migration in Europe since World War II: the European refugee crisis.
These themes are on our minds as we enter week 5 of rehearsals. Director Kimberly Sykes told us early on that part of our research and development would involve meeting with the Coventry branch of homeless charity Crisis. The organisation has been helping individuals to rebuild their lives after undergoing some of the harrowing journeys we’ve seen in the media.
It’s 10 o'clock on 22 August and our company has grown by another 15 or so members from all over the globe. We shake hands as we go around the room. Sensing the awkward formality of this, our director gets us all in a circle and leads us in an ice-breaking warm-up game. She places a bottle in the middle of the room and calls it Stratford-upon-Avon, then asks us where home is in relation to it. The actors have played this game before and found it unexpectedly emotional. Our profession by its very nature can be transient and this can come at the cost of planting roots, so the game can make one face some difficult truths. However, when you have genuinely homeless people in the room — people who are fleeing their native land, leaving family behind, unsure about their housing and whether the UK will be their sanctuary — the game takes on a whole new meaning.
We move on to some improvisation and discover our new company members are naturals! One scene that will stay with me is Deborah and Chipo’s. Deborah is from central Africa and Chipo is our leading lady playing Dido. They improvise a scene where they try to communicate with one another using broken English. Chipo takes on the role of a refugee, while Deborah becomes the native meeting her upon her arrival. The scene’s pathos comes from Deborah welcoming the refugee with open arms. Chipo’s character then breaks down, overcome with gratitude and falling to her knees, before Deborah tells her to get up, showing she shouldn’t have to kneel. She implores others around the circle to prepare food, bring clothes, give aid. I found it very moving that Deborah the actor made this choice when Deborah the refugee may not have always received the same treatment.
Poignant moments like this crop up throughout the morning. Seyedeh is an Iranian lady who speaks about the mask you wear when far away from home. When neither side can offer physical help because of geography it becomes easier to lie to friends and family than admit the truth about bad situations. She recalls when the only time her family was able to make a call was also the time when she was unwell in hospital, and how it was easier to pretend or, worse, just not answer the call. She knows it goes both ways: it’s also easier for her family to say everything is fine in these snatched conversations than to burden her with the troubles back home.
One thing I hadn’t accounted for was how the day would affect the work I was doing in our Dido rehearsal room. It was affirming to see character choices I’d made reflected in the work created in these improvisations. For example, we created mini-scenes in small groups inspired by a word offered by the director. One group was given the word ‘Journey’ to interpret. They performed a piece where they board a boat, go through an arduous sea journey, and arrive at a shoreline only to be instantly lined up, threatened, and all but one shot in the head. In the play, my character Sergestus talks about landing on the shore and being immediately attacked by the ‘barbarous sort’. The group’s piece confirmed to me the level of urgency or panic required by Sergestus when he talks about the multitudes swarming to prohibit them from landing on the sand.
In the same piece, the English group members decided to incorporate the theme of substance abuse. The migrant character that escaped the firing squad would later be offered alcohol and drugs and told, ‘Drink. This is what we do in England’. As Sergestus, I made the character choice that he would be one of the Trojans who quickly adapts to living in the Carthaginian court and is reluctant to return to ship life and the mission of founding Troy. The option of the lure of alcohol being part of that choice was something I toyed with from that morning’s work.
It was an incredibly moving and inspiring experience, hopefully for all parties involved. We can forget that as artists we are in the uniquely lucky position of being able to process the world through the lens of our art. Regardless of whether you are a painter, actor or dancer, art can be the medium to interpret reality and sometimes to seek refuge from it. This symbiotic relationship between what happens in the world and how art interprets it makes culture. That sense of play is something innate that transcends cultures and borders, as demonstrated by the morning’s work. I would like to think that Marlowe would have enjoyed our Crisis workshop. He may even have written a play about it!