Dramatist who fled Russia puts spotlight on asylum phobia

When Victor Sobchak directed a version of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar in Russia in 1981, the combination of Western decadence and religion so appalled the Soviet regime that he was dispatched to a mental hospital in Siberia.

He spent six months there on tranquillisers at sub-zero temperatures, as both a punishment and a warning not to reoffend. There was, he stresses, not a hint of genuine psychiatric illness.

Despite glimmerings of change in the years of Mikhail Gorbachev that followed, Sobchak viewed the arrival of Boris Yeltsin as a return to the dark days. So at the end of a theatrical world tour which began at the Edinburgh Festival, he returned to the UK and applied for asylum, which was finally granted two years ago. He has now turned the years of uncertainty into a play that he hopes will shed light on the process for both aspiring immigrants and resident Brits.

At the Cochrane Theatre in London, the world premiere of F*****g Asylum Seekers is running until 23 April - just in time, he hopes, to shed new light on an issue that is set to be a key election battleground.

In the play, a group of heavily accented strangers arrive at the door of Stuart, who has always been a bit of a loser. Little by little, the strangers take away everything he holds dear.

Sobchak, 46, said most asylum cases were sad stories. "But I really didn't want to repeat all those stories. For me it was more interesting to use the famous British humour and the tradition of British black humour to create something farcical."

He takes the paranoia and fear that asylum-seekers can provoke to an absurd - and terrifying - conclusion. "I wanted to use British fear and prejudice towards foreigners and foreigners' prejudice towards British people as well," he said.

Looking back, he thinks his original act of rebellion in producing his show based upon Jesus Christ Superstar was "quite dangerous and silly of me because it was propaganda of religion to young people and there was the problem of Western influence because it was rock music".

He said that he hoped people would find his play funny and entertaining but that it would also make them think about the arguments.

A REFUGEE'S VIEW

"My first reaction after the play is that it's a good work, this play has covered the subject quite well to make the public aware of the asylum-seekers issue. The main actor is a British guy with a right-wing attitude. One night, a family from eastern Europe arrives in his house; they simply claim it's their house. This is the ironical picture of what people usually think of asylum-seekers. But the story has only dealt with white asylum-seekers. So, this play didn't go really deep into the asylum issue. It was mainly a comedy, and aimed to make people laugh about asylum issues, not really to show the real problems behind."

Zoe Neirizi, a solicitor from Iran, came to the UKin April 1993 and was given refugee status in December 1994.

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