Review: Do We Look Like Refugees?!

Written for Exeunt

Alecky Blythe, whose previous work includes The Girlfriend Experience and most recently the acclaimed musical London Road,  is known for giving voices to those whose words are not usually given space in a public arena; even knowing this about her and her work,  it is exciting to see a piece about the aftermath of the 2008 Georgian/Russian war touring England. In 2009 Blythe went to Georgia where she spoke to refugees from the Gori and Tserovani, temporary camps which have long been turning into semi-permanent settlements as the conflict remains unresolved. True to form her interviews were then edited into a 50 minute piece of theatre, with each cough and repetition presented exactly as it was recorded via headphones worn by the performers.

But for all that it promises this is a strangely unfulfilling event, a taster of what could have been. With a running time of just under an hour, the piece allows no room for these voices to grow and the result feels prosaic. Perhaps this is as it should be, the day to day trials of this resolute nation not being the stuff of romantic poetry. Yet the only moment in the production where one feels really connected is when the cast remove their headphones to sing a national folk song; it’s a defiant and universal moment that highlights their iron resolve more powerfully than the edited accounts of their survival ever do.

And so we reach the crux of the issue; is this a piece of rough and ready journalism or verbatim art? With its tales of bread selling and housing waiting lists Do We Look Like Refugees?! is neither hard hitting or objective enough to be the former nor is it particularly successful as a theatrical expression of a worn torn community, to work as the latter. There is just not enough time to assimilate the information (either emotionally or practically) that one requires to gain of full picture of their experiences.

But however shaky a platform this may be, it is undeniable that Blythe has shone a spotlight on stories that usually go untold. Anna Bliss Scully’s minimal touring set of clothes lines and grainy projections gives a good sense of this thrown together world. Mari Janashia, Edmond Minashvili, Lasha Okreshidze, Ketevan Svanidze and Teimuraz Tchitchinadze, all from Georgia’s Rustaveli Theatre, do a good job of evoking these people and their lives (the piece if is performed in Georgian with English surtitles). But the particular side effects of Blythe’s recorded delivery technique are not completely avoided and there is the sense that these performers are simply vessels for each interviewee. As a result the staging leaves one feeling slightly cold.

At one moment in the production an interviewee says excitedly of Blythe: “I know the literature of her country so I feel I know her well…” then she reels off a sequence of English greats including, of course, Shakespeare. It’s a common misconception to feel like you know a people from their brightest and therefore best known voices but here Blythe has given ordinary citizens a chance to tell their own stories. The displaced people of Georgia have a powerful story to tell, but this is a mere taster and feels as though it only presents the most basic details of their experience.

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