Theatre: The power of fairy tales

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