Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review: 'Closed Lands' at Vault Festival, 3rd March 2020

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 3 Stars

You don't have to be a geopolitical expert to see that the next decade is going to bring some drastic and depressing changes to the way we live. Global warming will inevitably result in mass migration from the global south. Arable land in equatorial countries is becoming desert, water sources are drying up, and with a lack of basic resources come the classic four horsemen: war, famine, pestilence and death.

Faced with that, it's hardly surprising that the number of people fleeing their homeland for the economic and political security of stable northern countries is increasing dramatically. Hell, if I were Eritrean, Guatemalan or Sudanese I'd get the hell out of there as soon as feasibly possible. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a massive increase in boats across the Mediterranean as people flee for their lives. Then imagine how European democracies will react to that...

Basically, it's going to be a nightmare for everyone except wealthy right-wing demagogues, who will be happier than a pig in shit. Xenophobia, racism and nationalism will all rise dramatically. There is nothing that any of us can realistically do to stop any of this happening and we're already well into the first act.

All this is the meat of Closed Lands, by Legal Aliens, a company comprised of Luiana Bonfim, Daiva Dominyka, Catharina Conte, Becka McFadden and Lara Parmiani, who are all migrants to the UK. The show is an artistic exploration of the inhumane systems that our countries have established to wriggle through the thin gap between what's legal and what's ethical.

And so, after showing us the celebrations of the Berlin Wall being torn down, we begin picking our way through the modern barriers. Trump's southern border wall is the obvious example, the show combining video footage of the test walls, explanations of the paramilitary 'minutemen' who take the law into their own hands to protect the USA and the misery of attempting to cross the desert over and over.

But Europeans shouldn't feel too smug. Most people haven't even heard of the Ceuta border fence, but the show goes into it in detail. This is the EU's equivalent of Trump's border wall, a fortified barrier in Morocco designed to stop migrants making their way to Spain. While it may not be known to many Europeans, the migrants sure are aware of it - as recently as August 2019 there was a pitched battle where people attempted to storm the wall and cut their skin to ribbons on the razor wire.

We also, of course, touch upon the drowned people in the Mediterranean, through a quick bit of drama in which one of the cast plays a trafficker, who says something along the lines of "sure, it's risky, but how much do you want this?" It should be always remembered that the corpses who end up beached in picturesque Mediterranean resorts were aware of the risks. They judged that the very real danger to their life was worth the chance of escaping to Europe, so throw that back into the face of anyone who describes their choice to leave as the cold and calculated sounding 'economic migration'.

You're probably gathering by now that Closed Lands isn't a particularly uplifting hour of theatre. It isn't, and the more you know about the systems the play is talking about the more depressing it is. 

One element I'm assuming is intentionally absent is the refusal to focus on individual stories. The aim here seems to be to present the facts in an engaging, theatrical and journalistic way rather than try to tweak the heartstrings. I'm on the fence about whether this works or not, as the show sometimes feels like a series of loosely connected sketches about various aspects of the immigration crisis.

For example, for all its bombast and energy, the show ends on a confusing metaphor about vegetables. I get why the symbol was chosen, but it's a pretty opaque way to end a show that feels designed to educate rather than entertain. 

Then again, I have seen a number of shows on the same topic like Cargo, Don't Look Away and The Claim, which all tell stories of specific migrants, so perhaps Legal Aliens are simply want to stake out their own territory on the subject.

Whatever the reasoning, Closed Lands is at minimum engaging, though more you think about it what it's showing you, the more sad the world feels. But ultimately (and this is not a criticism of the show), a theatrical production aimed at well-off theatre-going Londoners is probably less effective in actually changing things than pissing into a hurricane. 

But hey, what else is there to do?

Closed Lands is at the Vault Festival until 8th March. Tickets here.

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