New refugee-themed drama This Beach at the Lyric Belfast

Jenny Lee discovers how a visit to a German refugee camp challenged Irish playwright Gary Keegan to focus on our response to migrants, rather than their plight.

This Beach examines the notion of sovereignty and the lengths people will go to bar entry to their dominion.

WHITE Western European audiences are challenged about their response to the global refugee crisis in the latest play by Dublin theatre company Brokentalkers.

This Beach, which will be shown in Belfast this weekend, is a blistering satire to the on-going refugee crisis in Europe, examining the notion of sovereignty of one people over a piece of land; and the lengths people will go to bar entry to their dominion.

The setting is a private beach, owned and inhabited by a European family for generations. The family are celebrating a wedding when a stranger arrives on the shore – the drama unfolds as the family decide how to deal with them.

Brokentalkers are acclaimed internationally for their pioneering work of telling stories of social importance in an innovative way. Co-written and directed by founders Feidlim Cannon and Gary Keegan, the play began when the duo were approached in 2014 by the German Europoly festival to be part of a group of pan-European artists making work about Europe.

However, a visit by the pair to a refugee camp outside Berlin to begin research for the play radically altered their conception of what they would go on to write.

"We had initially intended to create a piece based on the experiences of refugees, similar to the approach we had taken in our other productions, such as Blue Boy, where we interview people, take their stories and devise a piece around what we heard," explains Gary.

"But when we arrived into the camp we discovered they already had their own successful theatre group making their own work."

Feidlim and Gary were amongst a long line of similar artists sniffing around for stories.

"The refugees were quite upfront with us in the fact they weren't really interested in the likes of us white European, somewhat privileged artists, coming in and cherry-picking their horrendous experiences."

The pair also quickly realised that the refugees were keen to put their past behind them: rather than re-living the trauma they left in their homelands, they were more interested in making theatre about their daily struggles, such as conditions in the camp, work permits and having their status held in limbo.

Gary says their visit was a "wake-up call" and outlines how the play changed following their visit to the camp.

"I'm relieved we saw and heard what we did. It was a message to take a different approach. Rather than being at risk of exploiting others, we turned the gaze back on ourselves and explore European attitudes towards dark people and people from outside the European family."

He describes the archetypal characters in the play as "disagreeable" and "grotesque". Each character represent the different facets and viewpoints of our society.

One character is obsessed with security and walls and borders, another is more volatile and extreme about keeping 'foreigners' out. The mother-in-law character is a type of liberal person, who seems to want to help, but doesn't listen to the stranger's needs.

The oldest character wants to keep them on the beach for free labour, whilst the bride is an artist who wants to exploit the stranger for artistic gratification.

"She is kind of based on us, when we visited the refugee camp," admits Gary.

This Beach also highlights the fact that migration is a natural phenomenon.

"As we have seen recently with the hurricanes in America and the Caribbean migration happens due to environmental conditions. Even if you look back at early civilisation – we all came from somewhere," adds Gary.

While it addresses a very serious issue, This Beach is humorous, lively, colourful and sharp in its treatment of the subject and provides plenty of laughs as well as being though-provoking.

"Often we were making work about other people whose stories we were telling and there was an onus on us to be respectful and stay within parameters. This time it is a dramatic fiction, so we have a freedom we don't usually have."

Next up for The Brokentalkers is a documentary play based on the life story of singer Mary Coughlan.

:: This Beach opens at Belfast's Lyric Theatre on November 25. See for ticket details.

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