Spotlight On Humanitarian Crisis In Lampedusa

Neil Dowden
By Neil Dowden Last edited 45 months ago
Spotlight On Humanitarian Crisis In Lampedusa ★★★★☆ 4


Londonist Rating: ★★★★☆

Lampedusa, a beautiful Italian island near the North African coast, may once have been best known as an idyllic destination for tourists, but sadly these days it makes the news headlines for the tragic consequences of the mass migration of those desperately seeking a better life. Fleeing conflict zones in countries like Libya and Egypt, they pay traffickers who abandon them in the middle of the Mediterranean. The lucky ones are rescued by the Italian coastguard, who bring them to Lampedusa for "processing", but over 3,500 have drowned. Anders Lustgarten’s powerful new play shines a searching light on the plight of these "boat people", while also linking it to immigration and racism issues closer to home.

In alternating monologues, we hear the stories of Stefano, a fisherman from Lampedusa now fishing corpses out of the sea, and Denise, a Chinese-British woman collecting debts for a payday loan company in Leeds to fund her university degree while caring for her disabled mother. Due to lack of work Stefano is forced to do a job that he loathes — "The sensation is like… like oiled lumpy rubbish bags sliding through your fingers" — and resents the tidal waves of immigrants "swamping" his island, but changes his views after he gets to know a Malian man. Likewise, Denise tries to detach herself from the unpleasant aspects of her work, and though herself a victim of racist insults, she has some xenophobic attitudes, but the genuine friendliness of a Portuguese woman she calls on makes her reassess her outlook.

While Stefano’s story has more weight, with a distinctly mythic quality — "We all come from the sea and back to the sea we will go" — it is counterpointed by Denise’s more down-to-earth account of everyday squalor undercut by biting humour. The two characters do not interact, but Lustgarten links their experiences by showing how although it easy it is to scapegoat "foreigners" in these tough times of economic austerity, it is vital not to forget our common humanity. A political activist as well as a playwright, he nonetheless here focuses on the fundamental humanitarian issues rather than particular public policy, with a message of hope rising above disaster; in contrast his play Shrapnel, about the Roboski massacre of Kurds (recently on at the Arcola), was more directly polemical.

Staged in the round in the intimate Soho Upstairs, with the audience seated on backless benches around an oval-shaped wooden disc, and using only a few telling props such as a model ship and torchlight, High Tide Artistic Director Steven Atkinson’s intense production does not release its grip as the actors prowl around eyeballing and addressing us directly. Ferdy Roberts gives a compelling performance as the troubled Stefano, creating strong dramatic momentum as he turns from anger to compassion. Louise Mai Newberry also impresses as the cynical, caustically funny Denise who knows how to work the system but is moved by a stranger’s unexpected kindness. It may seem sometimes that everyone is out for themselves but here we are forcefully reminded that actually we’re all in the same big boat.

Lampedusa is on at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street W1, until 26 April. Tickets are £20–£16. Londonist saw this production on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 13 April 2015