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

Photo: Getty Images
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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.