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 and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power