In early January at the Cockpit Theatre in London, I attended a production of Borderline: a comedy about a tragedy, a hilarious pastiche of day-to-day life at the Calais Jungle, a refugee camp in France, before its recent clearance. Produced through a series of improvisation workshops by PsycheDelight, the play is cowritten and coperformed by ex-residents of the Jungle who have now found sanctuary in England.
If humanity evolved by migrating, then border walls are an impediment to our development as a species. With ethno-nativism and nation-state barriers currently on the rise, far from reaching a point of fatigue, border-challenging art and performance continue to diversify, in genre and in mood. For as long as mental and physical borders attempt to solidify, art will find ways to shatter them, new strategies to widen the cracks, new force with which to eventually topple the walls down.
Edgy drama, gut-wrenching metaphor, rhythmic rage, and their combinations can be very effective in moving an audience to empathy and reflection. The telling of a tragedy can harvest much power from contrasts of fact and feeling, but even more so from ironies of form and genre. Provided that the risk taken is large enough, and the attitude is playfully respectful yet irreverent in the right places, comedy—that is, comedy about tragedy—can hook, shake, and awaken an audience at a deeper level.
As long as mental and physical borders attempt to solidify, art will find ways to shatter them, new strategies to widen the cracks, new force with which to eventually topple the walls down.
As far as the complex, unpredictable vicissitudes of people in flight are concerned (I avoid the words “refugee crisis,” a term denoting a frenzied media attention that came and went, and that spoke only from the perspective of the spectactor), aside from political cartoons, there has been little artistic engagement so far in the way of comedy. Last July, as part of the Africa Writes festival, the British Library hosted Joy Gharoro-Akpojotor’s The Immigrant, a play which is comedic from its very proposition: set in 2116, a Brit seeks asylum in the African Union, and cannot convince the detention guard of his innocence and genuine need for sanctuary. The dialogue itself does explore the potential for humor offered by the monde à l’envers, yet the overbearing feeling at the closing of the play is one of tense inner revolt.
Borderline is the first contemporary border-related play I have seen that identifies as a full-blown comedy. The show is a hilarious satire of the Calais Jungle, cowritten and coperformed by people who have lived it, survived it, and have the bravery and gall to look back and laugh—not innocently, much less sneeringly—at the absurdities of their experience. Part slapstick, part farce, a troupe of eleven actors spanning seven nationalities (Afghan, British, Chilean, French, Palestinian, Sudanese, Syrian), all barefoot, play out a series of sketches woven together with the shoe as leitmotif.
Image: Circus cage parked in the hypermarket in Calais. Courtesy of the author.
The joyful teamwork exudes the complicity and camaraderie I witnessed when I visited Calais in April 2015: at the church parvis that hosted a group of Syrians, Iraqis, and Kurds, and in the tents of the camp soudanais that were resprouting like flowers behind a hypermarket two days after having been bulldozed, young refugees and local volunteers, many in their twenties or thereabouts, would share jokes, stories, meals, time. Amid the adversity, there was absurdist humor offered by the backdrop, too: a circus was parked on one side of the hypermarket, with two lions in a large cage (pictured above); Calaisien families came to see the African fauna, ignoring the young Darfurians sitting around on the grass, drinking tea and doing their best to keep warm. A red sign on one of the iron partitions in front of the cages read: “Ne pas franchir les barrières, DANGER DE MORT.” The irony of the sign was not lost among residents and visitors of the camp: in an open tent doubling up as kitchen and lounge, sitting on tall cans of ravioli used as stools and drinking coffee around a small fire, the parked circus meters away provided much laughter.
In a similar spirit of irreverent friendship and generous humor, Borderline (poster depicted left) features a “Jungle fashion show,” a health-and-safety bureaucrat ensuring that no “rules on the list” are broken by under-eighteens attempting to jump onto a train, an agent of the Compagnie republicaine de sécurité dangling a kufiya under the nose of a playful refugee-hunting dog, and a volunteer searching for Syrians in the crowd to comfort with her out-of-tune ukulele. The jokes are risky, but very effective and authentic, drawn from the experiences of the actors who are themselves ex-residents of the Calais Jungle. The ingenuity in the use of simple props, often for multiple effects, adds to the spirit of solidarity amid the apparent (but organized) chaos.
There are a couple of tragic moments in the play, which are also the most poetic. When news of an accident arrives, abruptly cutting a hysterical slapstick sketch, four of the characters gather around a mound of shoes serving as a coffin for a fourteen-year-old Afghan boy hit by a truck. During this funeral and homage, the actors let bits of soil fall slowly from their hands onto the shoes, making a sound reminiscent of pattering rain. The laughter that leads up to this late scene, and the returning humor that follows it, in no way trivialize the symbolic event, but make the moment of tragedy more solemn, more powerful, more intimate, as the audience has warmed to the crowd of characters through over half an hour of hilarity.
Borderline was created through a series of theater improvisation workshops led by PsycheDelight, a success story of performance as individual and collective therapy, and, equally importantly, as high-quality entertainment on and around the stage. Nevertheless, this play should not be seen as a British/European production generously welcoming and offering space for refugees to express themselves within its framework. Borderline is the voice of a plural but single generation that has inherited an unjust nation-state regime with all its physical borders, and turns to ridicule the received divisions poignantly and amusingly. This ridicule is delivered in unison, irrespective of which side of the planetary border each actor happens to have travelled from.
Borderline is the voice of a plural but single generation that has inherited an unjust nation-state regime with all its physical borders, and turns to ridicule the received divisions poignantly and amusingly.
In December 2014, as reported in the UK press, part of a new metal fence at the Calais ferry port was blown over by high winds. At the Cockpit Theater in west London, there was enough laughter to blow down the fence from end to end.
Following the success at the Cockpit Theater, Borderline will be performed at the Southbank Centre in June 2017, and at the Edinburgh Fringe in August 2017. For more information visit the Facebook page, or watch the trailer here.