As Scots company Wiseguise prepares to tackle a gritty play about refugees, its writer Donal O‘Kelly explains to Neil Cooper why some European border controls are tighter than ever.
The day I speak to actor/playwright Donal ()‘Is'elly. Michael Howard is hard at it in The Commons. slipping in ever more measures in preparation for the new immigration proposals he‘s about to launch. ()‘Kelly is in Glasgow to look in on Wiseguise‘s production of Asylum! .»I.vylum.’. performed at Dublin‘s Abbey Theatre last year. The play is set in the recent past and in the near future in Dublin. and tells of Joseph ()mara. who flees there from L‘ganda after witnessing his father being burnt to death. Pitt into the context of Ireland catching up with an increasingly xenophobic Iiurope. the locations make sense.
‘The difference between Ireland and the rest of the European Union is that Ireland does not recognise refugee status whatsoever.‘ says ()‘Kclly. ‘Even though we signed the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in I95 I. it was never ratified so it doesn't mean a thing.‘
The choosing of Uganda is also crucial. ‘There's a tnove in [Europe to say that there are certain countries which are safe and democratic. so consequently there can‘t be any refugees there.‘ says ()‘Kelly. ‘Uganda
No sanctuary: Laurie Ventry sends David Baker packig in rehearsals for Asylum! Asylum!
is just such a country that would fall into that category. Okay, the current government are a breath of fresh air compared to the previotrs one. bill there are still human rights abuses which the government admit to and which are documented by Amnesty lnternational.‘
The whole Fortress Iiurope idea is also something that bothers t)‘ Kelly and informs the play. ‘When the
‘I wrote this play as a kind of flag. You roll out the flag and say, “There’s something brutal going on that needs
to be addressed.” ’
French elected a new right-wing government in 1993. the Minister for the Interior Charles I’asqtralle stated his aim to reach a situation of zero immigration. This is an ethos he‘s brought into Europe in general. The ghastly thing is that here Michael Howard thinks the EU is too leaky. which is completely off the wall.‘
It hardly needs saying that ()‘Kclly is a political writer. though he has no truck \\ ith worthiness for its own sake. ‘No matter what you put on a stage it has
to be a good story thrillineg told,‘ he says. ‘These elements have to be there whether you‘re doing a politically relevant play or a bedroon; farce. and you shouldn't be allow ed to get away with them aot being there. ()n the other hand. the atmosphere that exists now means if you‘re writing overtly issue based plays you‘re going completely against the grain. I don‘t mind that. and in a way it‘s all the more important to write them because of that very reason.‘
Wiseguise has always show it an unprecedented level ofconrmitttnent to its work. which here extends to supporting the Morayo Scanlon ('ampaign. Despite having lived and worked in (ilasgow for twelve years. Nigerian-born Scanlon and her two children have been threatened with deportation alter the breakup of her marriage to a Scotsman.
()‘Kelly sees this campaigning element as vital to his work: 'I wrote this play as a kind of flag. You roll out the flag and say. “'l’here‘s something brutal going on that needs to be addressed.” Then you wave the flag as high as you can iii the hope that you‘ll gather a critical mass of people around you who'll maybe go on to tip the balance in favour of asylum-seekers. refugees and immigrants. .-\nyone with eyes in their head catr see how difficult things are. but you shouldn‘t let the obstacles immobilise you It's a case of finding different ways to do things. and really boils down to having a sense of responsibility.‘
He cites his next play. The Business ()fli/mu/ to illustrate this. It is based on the story of Chris Cole. who broke into British .-\erospaee and inflicted £400,000 worth of damage on Hawk lighteriets that were going to be sold to Indonesia. He said that as a citizen he not only had the right to do it but the responsibility too,‘ says ()‘Kelly ‘In a way that‘s what I‘m trying to do. But then again you don‘t want to be cotnpletely hard-bitten and go about carrying a cross on your shoulder. I‘ve no great desire to be a martyr.‘ (Neil Cooper)
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Stormy ; relationships 2
The theatre seems to be awash with dramatised novels these days, but while there is a certain commercial safety in putting Irvine Welsh, Salman Rushdie or even Dostoevsky on the stage, the same can’t be said of Nancy Brysson Morrison’s The Gowk Storm, a r neglected Scottish classic from 1933. i Colin MacDonald, who has adapted ’ the novel for Edinburgh’s Royal i Lyceum, discovered it by chance. ‘I i used to go into a bookshop in the i l I
centre of Edinburgh, and the haunting picture on the cover would stare out at me,’ he says. ‘I thought, “The Gowk Storm? Yeah, that sounds really good . . . not!” ’
Eventually, he gave in to impulse,
fiance has lasting, tragic Iconsequences.
bought the damned thing and was enthralled by it. Set in a remote Highland parish in the 18505, it centres on the three daughters of the local minister, exploring their coming of age in the school of hard Knox and the effects of rural superstitions, religious friction and the rigid values of a small patriarchal community.
A ‘gowk storm’ is a snowfall occurring in early spring, but can also mean a sudden, violent and short-lived misfortune. The irony is that while Julia’s disappointed romance and marriage to an older widower passes like a brief emotional squall, her sister Emily’s love for her best friend’s
Lots of laughs, huh? ‘It sounds bleak,’ admits MacDonald, ‘but it’s also a funny, lively, life-enhancing story. You could say it’s about life before death.’ True, despite the sturm und drang, the novel is suffused with a The Gowk Storm: Simone Lahbib takes over I poignant warmth and as the sun
breaks through the darkest clouds, a sense of hope remains.
With several television dramas to his credit, this is MacDonald’s first foray into live theatre. ‘There’s a lot of snobbery in the Scottish theatre about people who write for TV: we’re not real writers,’ he says. ‘I took the book to [artistic director] Kenny Ireland, who’d not been long appointed at the Lyceum. Because he’d worked in television, I knew I’d be treated seriously.’
The book had a similar impact on Ireland, who was persuaded to take a gamble on the venture. If it pays off, not only might it promote the rediscovery of a fine and subtle novel, but perhaps more directors will dare to step outside the bounds of familiar fiction in search of theatrical success Which might well augur a bright spell r ahead for Scottish drama. (David Harris) 9 The Gowk Storm, Royal Lyceum, I Edinburgh, 7—22 Apr. J
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