Women's refuge

Theatre - Rachel Halliburton on a trio of plays giving powerful voice to the dispossessed

The women are strikingly different: the bitch in a black cocktail dress with a wild survivor's glint in her eye; the Macedonian mother who wields her history and her apron strings with pride; and the African political journalist whose anti-government prose has led to the massacre of her entire family. And yet, these defiant, struggling individuals are all damned by the same term - immigrant. Unlike tens of thousands of others, however, each of this unlikely trio has been allowed to tell her story to hundreds of people, night after night. Theatre and politics, which hold each other at arm's length too often, are united in three plays about asylum-seekers: The Bogus Woman, Credible Witness and, less obviously, Medea.

In the 19 February issue of the NS, Lauren Booth welcomed Alistair Beaton's Feelgood, a lacerating satire on the new Labour spin machine. In Beaton's play, the attack on British politics is served up with belly laughs; but an altogether more explosive dynamic is used in The Bogus Woman. At a time when asylum-seekers are mainly dehumanised through a barrage of hostile headlines, it is no wonder that audiences reel with shock after seeing Kay Adshead's play, which makes them feel the reality of the humiliation, frustration and anger of a young black woman who meets only cynical disbelief when she tries to tell immigration officers about her rape and the destruction of her family by soldiers.

Adshead wrote the play as a synthesis of the accounts of several asylum-seekers, after she was appalled by riots at the frequently inhumane Campsfield House Detention Centre near Oxford in 1997. Her fury at the political impotency of refugees is such that she declares proudly: "I was not trying to write a balanced play at all."

Detractors might protest that the play simply appeals to the feel-angry factor in liberal audiences - that it lacks, say, the essential objective rigour of Richard Norton-Taylor's response to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, The Colour of Justice, or the divisiveness of David Mamet's disturbing drama about sexual politics, Oleanna. But the universal critical acclaim accorded to The Bogus Woman shows that, among other qualities, it fills a public emotional need. This is in marked contrast to Timberlake Wertenbaker's more measured Credible Witness. Olympia Dukakis stars as a formidable mother who comes to Britain to find her son, who is in exile from Macedonia after being beaten up for his political beliefs. The son's background as a history lecturer leads to a gently articulated debate about identity, nationhood and the way in which refugees' trauma inevitably distorts their relationship with the country that once nurtured them.

Like Adshead, Wertenbaker wrote her play after years of research among asylum-seekers. However, despite characters such as the Eritrean boy who is emotionally paralysed as a result of returning home to discover his family hanging from the rafters, or the Somalian girl whom a hostile interpreter falsely portrays as a prostitute to British immigration officers, Credible Witness feels more like an intellectual exercise than theatre. When it does work, it catches you by surprise: Dukakis's striking central performance leads to memorable scenes, subtly revealing the mental and emotional hurdles that genuine asylum-seekers have to jump to make their stories heard, as well as the identity shifts they must make to survive.

Although Credible Witness is less successful, it reminds us that theatre continues to provide a voice for the politically dispossessed, as it has done for thousands of years. In Deborah Warner's intelligent and revelatory production of Medea, we see how this tradition was already established in classical drama. As a woman and a foreigner in ancient Athens, Medea's devastation at her husband's adultery would have been confined to the stifling quarters of an anonymous room.

Fiona Shaw's beautifully unhinged performance blasts open the identity crisis of a clever, controlled woman who has no family or country left to define her. It should be a warning to new Labour that, more than two thousand years on, the rage of her dispossession still has power to burn.

The Bogus Woman is at the Bush Theatre (020 7610 4224), London, until 3 March. Credible Witness is at the Royal Court (020 7565 5000), London, until 10 March. Medea is at the Queen's Theatre (020 7494 5040), London, until 14 April

Rachel Halliburton is a theatre critic for the London Evening Standard

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Democracy can be bad for you