City or United? Manchester theatre director says Calais refugees ‘just normal people in extreme circumstances’

Visiting a refugee camp may not be a weekend activity that immediately springs to mind but for a young Manchester-based theatre director it was an essential and rewarding trip.

Brett Lee Roberts, 28, is one part of a dynamic duo, along with producer Michael Cook, who form Target, a theatre company exploring untold stories from across the globe.

The company are inspired by political events and human issues which have a huge impact on the world we live in.

Angered by the decisions, or non-decisions of our government surrounding the worldwide refugee crisis, Target stepped in to develop a play that aims to discuss the different facets of this controversial debate and bring a variety of voices to the table.

“David Cameron’s ‘swarm’ metaphor particularly stood out to me,” Brett told MM.

“I was struck by the rhetoric our politicians used to justify their inaction.”

He described the British public as ‘confused’ by the situation as they are presented with the  ‘stuttering and contradicting’ messages from media and politicians.

“On the one hand we have had a creeping political rhetoric for some time which has slowly perpetuated the myth that immigration is somehow damaging,” he said.

“And on the other hand we have had the natural human response to want to help suffering people.”

This indecisiveness prompted his company to dig further into this complex issue and he believed there was no better way to do this than getting right into the depths of the problem, to delve into its roots and plunge into the heart of the jungle.

Brett’s most interesting find, which may surprise some people, was the sheer normality of the people living in the camps.

He said: “They were just normal people who had found themselves in extreme circumstances.

“The people who I met were generous, warm and wanted to tell their stories.

“When I told them I lived in Manchester only one question was on everyone’s lips. City or United? It was like being at home!”

The first thing that resonated with Brett was the overwhelming vastness of the camp, making it feel more permanent and imposing than a camp.

He said: “This isn’t a camp, it is so huge it is a town. A slum.

“I defy anyone to see the size of the camp and meet the people within it and not come away disgusted that we can allow people to live in this way so close to home.”

One of the stories that really had an impact on him as he navigated his way through the maze of human emotion, suffering and struggles on the camp was that of a teenage boy.

He recalled how the boy had left his country completely alone, in the middle of night, with the sole intention of getting to Calais.

His parents had no idea he was leaving and it took almost a year for him to reach the camp.

“I couldn’t even imagine what he must have been thinking or feeling in order to pluck up the courage to leave like that as a 14-year-old boy,” he said.

During his trip, the theatrical practitioner met a whole host of volunteers based out there semi-permanently ranging from builders and plumbers to doctors, artists and musicians.

But they all had one thing in common – they all feel absolutely ‘compelled to help’.

“Most of the volunteers I met were British people…I’m not sure what that says, but it gave me a lot of hope,” he said.

The camp itself is relatively disorganised with no official distribution system so that food, amongst other necessities, sometimes go to waste on as a consequence.

People are not getting what they so desperately need at a time when they need it.

However the French government has recently introduced the use of large shipping containers to act as a ‘temporary’ shelter and refuge for the people and children residing on the camps.

Brett said: “I don’t think the Jungle Camp as it is called is going anywhere fast.

“Real organised help is needed until a political solution to the crises can be reached.”

Of course Calais is not the only refugee camp in the world, there are sadly many more spanning the landscape of our planet.

However, the director chose Calais to visit and focus on as it seems the most poignant to a UK audience perhaps because it is less than 30 miles across the pond.

“This is where the refugee crises is most close to home in minds of the majority of the British public and so I think the stories in Calais have a particular impact,” he said.

“They feel less avoidable and harder to turn a blind eye to because they are so close to home.”

Target’s play will use verbatim dialogue throughout, taking the words of the people they’ve met in ‘The Jungle’ to create the script.

Every word will be ‘real.’

The play will also incorporate the other aspect such as  conversations with people in Britain offering a wide perspective on the subject and a variety of thoughts and opinions.

Brett said: “I think what theatre can do is give a platform to voices we often don’t hear.

“Our aim is to create a unique situation where we hear the refugee’s themselves whilst also hearing the bloke down the local pub who has an opinion.

“I think it’s interesting for audiences to meet both these people in the same evening

“I want people to hear the stories I heard.”

There are various reasons behind staging a play of this kind, explained the director, but ultimately it is to create awareness and to open up a dialogue in a less oppressive fashion.

It allows people the opportunity to explore this delicate issue in a thought-provoking environment outside of the media’s influence and away from the harsh views of disapproving politicians.

“It is the pursuit of basic human needs that has compelled these people to leave their homes and everything they know to travel half way across the world to ask us for help,” Brett said.

“Essentially we all want the same thing, safety and the opportunity to flourish as people.

“My hope is that at least one person will go away from each performance and be inspired to be active.”

Is the crisis ongoing? Are we any nearer in gaining a solution? Will these people ever be free from the fear of war, poverty, restriction and violence? All of these are questions we ask ourselves and all of these need urgent answers.

Brett’s response: “I guess history will judge us by the answer we give to them.”

Time will tell what the outcome of this will be, but meanwhile staying engaged and alert to all that is going on may be the best way to make any informed decisions.

Target theatre company’s play Swarm will be touring the UK in Autumn 2016. For more information click here.

Image courtesy of BBC, via YouTube, with thanks.

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