Before we are led into the metal shipping container, some of us wonder out loud about the heat, the dark, the air. The closeness of others. And we’re just the audience for Clare Bayley’s play The Container, directed by Zachary Florence and running at the Theatre Centre back lot during SummerWorks.
Once inside, we sit on stacks of narrow palettes that line the inner edges of the container, light cushions making the seating more comfortable. We’d each been given a bottle of water and told that if we needed to leave the container, for whatever reason, to stand up or raise a hand – and one of the actors would escort us out. Four people enter: two men and two women. The door of the container slams shut with a loud metallic boom and we are thrown into darkness. Then, one by one, small lights appear – the four actors have flashlights – but the atmosphere is tense with fear and uncertainty, audience placed in extreme close-up with a simulated refugee smuggling operation.
And the journey unfolds, another refugee enters: a woman, who is sick to her stomach shortly after she arrives, and another woman uses the makeshift latrine in the corner, her young companion holding up a scarf to give her some privacy. Although not sensed directly, the audience is reminded of the sickening smells that would be accompanying such a journey.
The cast does a remarkable job of with the complex range of emotions in such a situation. These characters can’t stay in their home country, and must risk travelling to England illegally, paying thousands of dollars, and putting their lives and futures into the hands of men they don’t know. Desperation. Fear. Hope. Despair. Love. Distrust. Kindness. Cruelty. Each has a story, a reason, a goal. Fatima (played with guile and strength by Bola Aiyeola) and Asha (Ubah Guled, bringing a kind, tender and hopeful young woman), fleeing life in a refugee camp. Jemal (played with strength and conviction by Adriano Sobretodo Jr.) longs to be united with his young family, while former businessman Ahmad (played with a nice layering of fierceness and moral frailty by Sugith Varughese) worries about his financial future and that of his children. The newcomer to the group, Mariam (played with a lovely balance of vulnerability and courage by Lara Arabian), is a recent widow and has a secret – her illness is not what it seems. And Constantine Karzis is equal parts seductive and snake-like as the Agent/middleman to this mission of refugee smuggling.
We got the mildest taste of what it would be like to be a refugee being smuggled across borders this way – but we knew, in this simulated environment, that freedom was 60 minutes away. And we heaved a collective sigh of relief as we got back outside into the sunshine and cool breeze.
Winner of the 2007 Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, The Container is a powerful, unforgettable and unique theatrical experience.
The Container runs until Sun, Aug 17 – performance dates include two shows per day; check for details here.
For more info on refugee protection, visit the sites of: Canadian Council of Refugees, Romero House or The UN Refugee Agency (thanks to The Container folks for providing this info in the program).