‘This will never stop,’ writes playwright Anders Lustgarten in the  introduction to his critically-acclaimed drama Lampedusa which, unflinchingly and without a trace of sentimentality, deals with the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean. I saw it last night at Liverpool’s Unity Theatre, co-producer of the play with the Soho Theatre, where it was first performed.

‘This is not a blip, an aberration,’ continues Lustgarten. ‘These people will never stop coming.  However many of them we try to drown or lock up.’

That assertion is borne out by Patrick Kingsley’s report in this morning’s Guardian from one of the few ships trying to save refugees from flimsy, sinking boats in the Mediterranean. Although in recent months attention has shifted to those making the trek through the Balkans, the number of people attempting the sea crossing from Libya to Italy has remained at record levels. And record numbers are dying in the process. According to figures in the Guardian, 130,891 people have reached Italy so far in 2015, while a total of more than half a million refugees have arrived in Europe by sea so far this year.

Lampedusa is one of the most powerful dramas I have seen in recent years. On a bare stage, without props of any kind, the play takes the form of two interwoven monologues performed with terrific intensity by Louise Mai Newberry and Steven Elder who plays Stefano, an Italian fishermen who now earns a living salvaging the bodies of refugees who have died making the crossing from north Africa to Italy.

Patrick Kingsley's image of a refugee boat rescued in the Mediterranean
Patrick Kingsley’s image of a refugee boat rescued in the Mediterranean

The play begins with Stefano’s words, evoking in heightened style the long history of human movement across the Mediterranean:

This is where the world began. This was Caesar’s highway. Hannibal’s road to glory. These were the trading routes of the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians, the Ottomans and the Byzantines. If you look carefully, my grandfather used to say, you can still make out the wakes of their ships. […] We all come from the sea and back to the sea we will go.  The Mediterranean gave birth to the world.

What makes Lampedusa so challenging is the way in which Lustgarten pulls away from that lofty perspective, bringing the subject into close domestic focus by complementing Stefano’s monologue with that of Denise (an intense performance by Louise Mai Newberry), an embittered young Yorkshire woman of Chinese extraction who is working her way through university by acting as a debt collector for a payday loan company. Contemptuous of those from whom she must extract money – ‘Learn some discipline. If you ain’t got the money, do without. I have. I do.’ –  she is resentful of the growing racism she experiences:

Spat at on the bus this morning.  Couple of public schoolboys, I’d say. I’d not heard ‘chinky cunt’ and ‘fucking migrant’ in that accent till recently. But lately I get it quite a bit. Middle class people think racism is free speech now. The matchless bitterness of the affluent.

Steven Elder and Louise Mai Newberry in Lampedusa
Steven Elder and Louise Mai Newberry in Lampedusa

Denise is a complex character: resentful of the debtors with whom she has to joust and pissed off by the demands made by her mentally-handicapped and ill mother who is battling the ATOS Work Capability Assessment, she feels like an outsider in her own country, spewing a resentful bile:

I can’t stand this country now.  The hatred.  The hatred and the bitterness and the rage. The misplaced, thick, ignorant rage. The endless waiting like sheep to the slaughter when the buses and trains, things you’ve paid through the nose for, don’t turn up. Ah well, mustn’t grumble. Keep calm and carry on. And the pushing and shoving and whining and grabbing when Black Friday rolls around.  Me, me, me.  Want, want, want. Blaming ‘fucking migrants’ for every single thing we don’t like about ourselves.

At first you wonder how Lustgarten will resolve these two geographically and socially different strands. But, gradually, unifying themes begin to emerge. It becomes clear that both monologues concern people who are drowning: literally so in the cases of those whose bodies Stefano and his brother pick up at sea; figuratively for those who Denise deals with, drowning in debts imposed by exploitative pay-day loan sharks.

Both characters also begin to understand the pressures experienced by the drowning ones with whom they deal.  As Denise observes:

Migrants don’t scrape together their life savings, leave their loved ones behind, bribe and fight and struggle their way onto the undercarriage of a train or into a tiny hidden compartment of a lorry with forty other people, watch their mates die or get raped, all for the express purpose of blagging sixty-seven pounds forty-six pence a week off Kirklees District Council.

For both Denise and Stefano, the Damascene revelation comes as the result of an initially-unwanted friendship. In Stefano’s case it happens one morning when the engine of their boat won’t start after half an hour of fiddling. In five minutes, though, it’s fixed by Modibo, a mechanic escaping Islamic fundamentalists in Mali who expects nothing in return, but instead  wants to buy the brothers a coffee. Stefano’s first instinct is to refuse:

You try to keep them at arm’s length.  If you let them get close, you never know what they might ask for.

But gradually they become firm friends, and Stefano’s story will ultimately hinge on his decision to risk his own life for Modibo. Similarly, Denise finds her attitudes upended when a Carolina, a a Portuguese single mother deep in debt invites her to dinner. And so another unlikely friendship takes root.

With friendship comes a deeper understanding of the other’s plight. For Stefano it’s his realisation of the forces that lie behind the endless waves of refugees washing up on the shores of Lampedusa:

Syrians are the latest thing.  Palestinians last summer when Gaza got  bombed. Egyptians and Libyans the past couple of years. We read the papers and we see a disaster, a crackdown, a famine, and we say, ‘They’ll be here next’.  Makes me laugh when people call them ‘economic migrants’.  It’s like an earthquake – you feel the tremors far away and you know the tidal wave is coming.

For Denise, understanding comes from her friendship with Carolina, and through seeing the impact of the government’s work capability assessment on her own mother – subjected to a variety of trials before being deprived of her benefits and suffering a heart attack as a likely consequence (no exaggeration on Lustgarten’s part, as these official statistics reveal).

In his review for the Guardian, Michael Billington wrote:

Lustgarten draws instructive parallels between Stefano and Denise. Both are dealing with people in extremity. … But, far from being a 65-minute litany of despair, Lustgarten’s play is about the survival of hope. Stefano is befriended by a mechanic from Mali eagerly awaiting the arrival of his wife; and, in her own crisis, Denise finds a sympathetic companion in a debt-ridden Portuguese single mother.

Lustgarten’s whole point is that systemic disaster is countered by individual kindness and, in the play’s balance of opposites, I was reminded of something Harold Pinter said in his final TV interview: “I think that life is beautiful but the world is hell.”

It’s a short play – barely more than 60 minutes – but it packs a considerable punch. In the final moments, watching the dancing and singing at Modibo’s wedding celebration in the refugee camp, Stefano says of the refugees who have found landfall on Lampedusa:

They’ve given us joy. And hope. They’ve brought us the things we have nothing of. And I thank them for that.

They don’t know what’ll happen. If either of them will get to stay long-term. But they’re here, in this moment, alive and living.  And that is all you can ask for. I defy you to see the joy in Modibo and Aminata’s faces and not feel hope. I defy you.

Or, as Denise expresses the matter in her pithy manner:

Fucking, fucking hell. Why are people kind?

Funnily enough, I saw the play after having watched – for the first time in my life – a Labour party leader’s entire speech at conference that afternoon. And there was Jeremy Corbyn addressing the issue as the worst humanitarian crisis in Europe since the Second World War, and globally the biggest refugee crisis there has ever been:

It’s a crisis of human beings just like you and just like me looking for security and looking for safety. Let’s reach out the hand of humanity and friendship to them.

He went on to urge party members and British voters not to accept injustice, but to stand up against prejudice:

Let us build a kinder politics, a more caring society together.

Or, as Anders Lustgarten writes in his introduction to the text of Lampedusa:

The basic question we need to ask ourselves … is what kind of society do we want to be?

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