Theatre: The power of fairy tales

Bucking the trend for docu-drama, Kosovar refugees in Dagenham are making surprising drama out of the crisis.

SEVEN ACTORS are squatting on bare floorboards in a run-down church hall in London's East End. A newspaper strewn across a table lies open at the headline: "Albania forces refugees to move south".

That truth looms large for this scratch ensemble, all recent Kosovar refugees among the three and a half thousand now living in and around Dagenham. The play they're rehearsing - Brokenville by Philip Ridley - draws indirectly on their experiences, running an imaginative parallel to their lives. It's an ingenious, horrifying tale of a group of strangers who escape a vicious war and end up in an unfamiliar house. Having lost their memories, they try to piece together new identities by telling each other stories. Inevitably, as dim perceptions from their past lives begin to emerge, these fairy tales become increasingly troubled. The sense of disorientation and catastrophe grows until a child, who has previously communicated only in whispers, speaks up: "It can't end this way," he declares. "This child will tell another story."

The play's cockney dialect is causing problems. A prolonged debate breaks out about the meaning of the word "bonkers". There is general incomprehension, except from 12-year-old Besart, who has picked up the language in only 11 months.

"It means mad," he pipes up. "It's a Dagenham word."

He's rewarded with a paternal grin from his director, Benjamin May, who conceived the project.

There is a feeling that something of real importance is being worked towards, that the result of these labours may really count.

"I wanted to create theatre with wide social implications," explains May, who visited community centres and ran workshops for the refugees.

"To begin with I asked them basic questions about their parents and about their bedrooms, just to establish a connection. Then we began to tell each other stories which, after a few sessions, started to acquire depth; tiny glimpses of darkness and pain began to surface. The experiences that these people have lived through are so harrowing that they would never have responded to straight questions. Yet because they were playing, their fantasies reflected the truth."

The fantasies, ranging from burning forests to dragons falling from the sky, were dramatised by Ridley and high-profile sponsors - Penelope Wilton, David Hare, and Tom Stoppard - were found to support the project. The results, says May, have been immensely beneficial.

"It's about helping them to do something positive. Positive about who they are and what they have endured. It's a fight for their pride."

The effect has been remarkable on Besart, who had his leg broken in Kosovo by Serbian police. When his father finally managed to have him smuggled out in a truck, his leg became swollen and blue from the cold. He could not move it for two weeks. Demoralised, he and his brother arrived in England to face more hostility.

"The people on our estate told us to go home," he recalls in a chillingly matter-of-fact-tone. "When we refused, they beat my brother up."

Besart, too, was bullied at school in Dagenham, where the other boys refused to believe his stories, until he brought in pictures of a child blown up by grenades.

"From that day, they never bullied me. And now the kids want to see the play. It does good that they come and learn about what has happened. Before, they all did drugs, now they want to spend their money on helping Kosovars to escape."

It sounds implausible, but Besart is insistent. His optimism is astonishing considering his cousin's body was found with half the head missing and his brother is still fighting.

For the whole cast, the play is a chance to reassert their identities. When Nato began its bombing campaign, Arbnesha, one of the actresses, was on the point of dropping out but was stopped by her father. Speaking on the phone from a cellar in Macedonia, he insisted she continue her work: "Go to rehearsal. We're helpless here but you have a chance to salvage a new life. Show them what you can do."

`Brokenville' is at St George's Church, Rogers Road, Dagenham to Sat, 8pm. Tickets on the door. All proceeds go to Kosovar Aid

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit