A play let down by too many speeches

Credible Witness | Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London
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The Independent Culture

Tackling the subject of political asylum, you might well expect a tirade on the iniquities of the voucher system, but Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play is anything but. Instead, it's a muted chamber opera on the themes of memory and history: to what extent does your national history form your identity? Arriving from lands torn by centuries of tit-for-tat vengeance, does the exile find England bland, obsessed only with the continuity of its own comfort?

Tackling the subject of political asylum, you might well expect a tirade on the iniquities of the voucher system, but Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play is anything but. Instead, it's a muted chamber opera on the themes of memory and history: to what extent does your national history form your identity? Arriving from lands torn by centuries of tit-for-tat vengeance, does the exile find England bland, obsessed only with the continuity of its own comfort?

Alexander - Adam Kotz, as the shambling, bright-eyed believer - loves history, chooses to stay and teach it in his Macedonian village. For his enthusiasm, he is beaten up by the police, his identity obliterated. He flees to Heathrow on a forged Albanian passport. No longer weighed down by his national history, he seizes a chance to redefine himself.

If only he had rung home. After three years' silence, retribution arrives in the form of Olympia Dukakis, all strong-jawed self-belief and dogged maternal love. She will find him or die. But soon she finds herself in a detention centre and the scene is set for mother and son to encounter a smorgasbord of asylum-seekers - Ameena (Somalia), Shivan (Sri Lanka), Anna (former Yugoslavia), Aziz (Algeria). Policing them all is Clive Merrison, the haggard immigration officer, offering an all too-rare shaft of comic insight.

The problem is that everything takes place on a grey-walled, Escheresque circle of corridors and ramps - designed by Es Devlin - forcing an isolation on the characters. Even their body language adds to the staginess.

Even though the refugees' stories are immortal, the story of the mother and son lacks sufficient human content to carry the debate. An intellectual debate maybe, but not a play. That requires passionate inter-reaction - this was Speaker's Corner, minus the heckling and exuberance.

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