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31 August 2011

Edinburgh Fringe: Fit For Purpose

There's no comedy in an exploration of the immigration process.

By Andrew Billen

Edinburgh, I found, on my brief visit, was quiet for the time of year. The festival fringe boasted it had more than 2,500 shows to see, but were there enough festival goers to go round? By week three you could walk down the Royal Mile and end up with only a couple of flyers in your pocket. And it wasn’t even cold. I noticed a pensioner with her overcoat undone, and that counts as an Edinburgh heat wave – a joke I owe to a stand-up circa 1990.

No comedy for me this year, however, as I plodded up to a garret above the Pleasance Courtyard for Fit for Purpose, a play by Catherin O’Shea based on her four years’ research into the asylum system and its abuse of women. One has to accept the limitations of these things. Even with support from the Pleasance’s special fund, director Tanja Pagnuco’s team will have subsidised this show. The sets are basic – some bars, some cushions, some chairs – and three of the five women actors double up (or treble and quadruple up) unconvincingly. Joyce Veheary, for instance, plays both a concerned women’s group leader and sadistic guard. The question was whether O’Shea, a former Royal Court young writer, would surmount these constrictions.

She did. Not always, but often enough, Fit for Purpose rose to become a poetic examination of how oppression robs its victims of their identity. Its chief character is Aruna, an asylum seeker from, she claims, Somalia, whose tragic true story we hear only in a dreamlike monologue near the end. Until then she is a mystery not only to the immigration authorities and her worryingly named “case owner” (a harassed lawyer played with appropriately brusque efficiency by Elizabeth George) but to her own daughter, Kaela, who wonders who this woman she is attached to actually is. She is also, and mainly, a mystery to us. Part of the cleverness of O’Shea’s writing is to make us wonder what claims Aruna does have on British clemency, given her vagueness about her provenance. Her fingertips have been even been flayed to obliterate their prints, a trick used to ensure you are not traced back to the first country you apply for asylum. Although I thought mainly of the desperation that must lie behind such voluntary mutilation, this was in itself a powerful metaphor for someone stripped of her identity.

The immigration process does not encourage truth-spilling, it being rushed, impersonal, hostile and amateur. Aruna’s African translator, for instance, refuses to relay that she has been raped on the grounds that it is shameful. But her secretiveness is troubling, the more so since, in a dramatic trope, we are allowed to hear Aruna speak in perfectly articulate, almost genteel English, to her daughter. Antoinette Tagoe plays her as a hope-seeker as much as an asylum seeker but we slowly see that her optimism is not triumphant but pathological, her velleity a shroud worn to protect herself from her past and also her future.

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“You can’t make me remember this,” she says. “I have already forgotten.” But someone who does not remember even the outrages committed against her (in her case, by her slave-master’s son back in Somalia, as well as by HMG) is barely a person any more. Aruna and daughter, whose asylum appeals are rejected but who, nevertheless, will not be returned to a war zone, disappear into the London’s subculture of illegal toilet cleaners, floor-sleepers and, very possibly, slaves.

Not all the play is a subtle as this. We have to put up with a nice cop/nasty cop routine between the racist guard Jill and her naïve, do-gooding apprentice, played by Anna Maria Nabirye. But the play’s more bizarre details are, I later discover, taken from life. Yarl’s Wood detainees really are woken up by the song “A Little Mouse with Clogs On”, and “fence-watching” actually is punishable by a spell in solitary confinement, because it is seen as proof of a wish to escape. The failed 2010 Yarl’s Wood hunger strike rumbles on in the background of the drama which ends with Aruna conceding there are, for her, no more appeals left. Yet as an appeal to this nation’s better nature, Fit for Purpose is, indeed, fitting. I am glad I saw it.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for The Times.