Timely, heartfelt look at refugees through the ages

Displaced looks at refugees’ struggles to build new lives in places that would rather not make room for them.
Displaced looks at refugees’ struggles to build new lives in places that would rather not make room for them.PHOTO: S.E. GRUMMETT

REVIEW / THEATRE

DISPLACED

Ground Cover Theatre

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival

Esplanade Theatre Studio

Last Friday


Three women, each living a century apart, flee their homelands to seek new lives in Canada, in this earnest triptych on the refugee experience through history.

In 1847, Mary escapes the Great Irish Famine on a coffin ship, her baby dying in her arms along the way. A hundred years after that, dressmaker Sofia leaves Germany after losing her Jewish husband.

In 2007, Dara flees an arranged marriage and an abusive father in Afghanistan, only to be met with the bureaucracy of the resettlement process.

Their stories intertwine across the centuries, as each finds herself reduced to drudgery, shunned in the streets and plagued by loneliness and longing for those back home.

Their shifting worlds are constructed from Carla Orosz's simple yet versatile set: three rectangular wooden frames on wheels that can morph into ship bunks, tenements or prison cells.

Director Natasha Martina focuses not so much on the journey of the refugees that so dominate media coverage, but on their struggles to build new lives in places that would rather not make room for them.

Desperate to make money to pay for her children's passage before they starve, Mary turns to the unlicensed liquor trade and sinks into alcoholism and disrepute.

Sofia must decide if she should sell her husband's treasured violin - all she has left of him - to her wealthy employer, so she can invest the proceeds in her own dress shop.

The most disarming development is Dara's unusual friendship with a homeless stranger, Leslie, who teaches her the complexities of the Canadian coffee order and finally gets her to break her silence on what happened to her back home.

The script is impassioned, though at times on the nose, as when Sofia's employer Mrs Brown quips tastelessly that she should spend her weekly afternoons off watching war films at the cinema, since this might remind her of home.

The play makes much use of physical movement, at times effectively, such as in scenes where the actresses scrub, iron or launder in synchrony. But when trying to convey the abstract, the movement flares into the overwrought.

One of the most timely plays programmed for this festival, it is a heartfelt illustration of the cyclical nature of migration and a call for openness.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 29, 2018, with the headline 'Timely, heartfelt look at refugees through the ages'. Print Edition | Subscribe