Woman Before a Glass by Lanie Robertson
Jermyn Street Theatre (Quick walk from Piccadilly Circus tube station) until 3rd February
90 Minutes, no interval
Veronica Stein, January 19th, 2018
Striking a delicate balance
The awkwardness is apparent as Serge(Ncuti Gatwa) and A(Nick Blakely), one of his case workers, begin The Claim. No matter though, for both seem determined to get along and have a laugh despite the task at hand. We’ve all been there, trying to break bread with someone we’ve only just met- though perhaps not under such delicate circumstances.
Serge has been living in the UK for two years, having entered with a now expired traveller’s visa from Uganda, and prior to that, the Congo. He is personable and wide-eyed but has a fundamental problem: he is not fluent in English.
The Claim is highly ambitious in its concept. Like Friel’s Translations before it, it seeks to represent two languages (French and English) through English, leaving the audience to determine when they are spoken. With writing so clever and performances so clear and energized, it’s not only doable but almost delightful- despite the subject matter which grows darker and deeper as the piece moves on.
Serge wants to tell his story, specifically the story of the night before his family first left the Congo, but it’s rendered impossible to lay out in the British system. A is not a perfect interpreter and quick to assume what would be most helpful, and B(Yusra Warsama), his coworker, can only speak English and jumps to conclusions before Serge can even fully understand what’s asked of him. The audience must watch as his words are not only repeatedly butchered but also transformed, until his interview is somehow spun, between the three of them, into an accusation.
All three performers are highly skilled and very believable. Gatwa moves between full command of the language and fumbling at the drop of a hat, along with magnificent earnestness. Blakely’s comic timing is brilliant and so is his energy and characterization, while Warsama is appropriately severe and fantastically balanced- despite her seeming (and aptly played) lack of interest, we are always interested in her. Mark Maughan’s direction is overall quite strong, specifically with regards to pacing and in many moments direct address is fantastically used (though sometimes overused). The design, with its ultra fluorescence and bright yellow aesthetic, seems to mimic both a vomit-colored government office and blinding spectacle- suitable to the tone and content.
Watching Serge’s control of his narrative evaporate via bureaucracy is incredibly affecting, and reminds us to always remember that assumption is dangerous- patience and understanding is key- and for many of those seeking asylum, is a reality that may have enormous and dangerous consequences. As B tells Serge, at some point the interview will have to end, since everyone will have to go home and carry on with their days. This process is mundane for these government workers- but for Serge and so many others there is no leaving it behind to pick up again the next morning.
The Claim is about how people with even the best of intentions can, in an imperfect system, fall so short to the point that more harm is done than good. It is also about, more than anything else, the importance of understanding, and understanding when you might be misunderstanding.
Serge: Ncuti Gatwa
A: Nick Blakely
B: Yusra Warsama
Director: Mark Maughan