Soho Theatre, London
Lampedusa, the island at the southern tip of Italy. Junction of two worlds, North Africa and Europe. Site of ancient trade routes. And now with a different, unwanted cargo spilling onto its shores.
In recent years, Anders Lustgarten has emerged as one the most engaged political playwrights of his generation. As a regular with the highly political Theatre Uncut, his plays are unapologetically didactic about the issues he feels passionately about – principally the damage wrought by latter-day capitalism.
Of one of his recent plays, If You Don’t Let us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep (which subsequently went on to win the Harold Pinter Playwright award), I wrote, a trifle loftily: `I’m not sure Lustgarten has quite got the hang of presenting an argument sufficiently theatrically.’
Well, such doubts should now be put to rest with Lampedusa which started off life at the popular High Tide Festival in Suffolk and now comes for a second time after a sell out run in the studio, to the Soho theatre’s main stage, courtesy of the Guardian and Unity Theatre, Liverpool – which probably tells you all you need to know about its political credentials.
But the heartening – and at the same time the most devastating – thing to report about Lustgarten’s latest is the choice he has made in highlighting the appalling human tragedy unfolding in the southern Mediterranean.
Instead of going for the more obvious economic disasters that lie behind the tidal wave of migrations, instead in the best tradition of political or any drama for that matter, Lustgarten personalises the issue taking us right into the heart and under the skin of two very contrasting but connected people – Stefano, an Italian fisherman and Denise, a Chinese British student working as a debt collector to pay her way.
Lustgarten’s writing in Lampedusa is wonderfully rich, varied and piercing – now descriptive, now internalised about each’s personal feelings and responses to what they are experiencing, then sometimes plain factual.
Barely an hour long, director Steve Atkinson, sets us in a circle on benches as if listening to two storytellers. And what stories they have to tell in the hands of two mesmerising performers, Ferdy Roberts as Stefano and Louise Mai Newberry whose Denise, as a mixed race Brit encounters personal racism and most tellingly, the effects on the most vulnerable of recent benefit cuts and the punishing inhumanity of the system that operates it.
I would defy anybody (a phrase used by Stefano at the end of the play in rather more optimistic terms) to sit through Denise’s descriptions of the clients she encounters and the treatment her mother suffers at the hands of `the system’ and not to feel eruptions of rage.
As for Stefano, Roberts’ quite quiet, painful description of his transition from netting fish – all but now disappeared – to becoming a fisher-out of corpses – brings home more eloquently than a dozen headlines, pictures or video clips the effect on another human being of hauling dead men, women and children from the aquamarine sea so often associated with sybaritic holiday tans and gleaming cruiser yachts.
Even more wonderfully, Lustgarten manages to leave us, amazingly in this highly toxic situation – the tidal wave of humanity shows no sign of slowing – not with a message of despair but rather of hope and transition; turning prejudice on the part of Stefano into gratitude at the joyous reconciliation he witnesses between a Mali husband and wife, the latter whom he saved in a vicious storm and brilliantly created through description, a few swaying lights and a tiny, tiny model boat.
A beautiful, beautifully humane and important piece. I urge you to see it.
Lampedusa is at the Soho Theatre to July 25, 2015
First published in London Grip July 2015