Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Refugee Boy

Theatre that breaks your heart and makes it anew.

by Alison Phipps, Co convener: GRAMNet.

Its nearly 10pm and the post show discussion of Refugee Boy, the play which premiered in Glasgow at The Citizen’s Theatre last night (Wednesday 12th March 2014) is nearly over. Questions have ranged across the political change theatre can make, the inaudibility of children’s voices in bureaucratic systems and the intriguing nature of the suitcase-play ground set. I’m beginning to relax – the moment when you think you may have reached the natural end of the discussion, when a young girl in the audience, on the front row, puts her hand up to ask a question.

“What can I do to campaign about refugee issues?”

And there it is. The answer to all our theorising about whether or not theatre has the power to make any difference in our lives or our political orderings. Clear as a bell, heard by everyone, theatre – this wonderful play by Benjamin Zephaniah, and its fresh and pacey adaptation for stage by Lemn Sissay, this imaginative, youthful production by Gail McIntyre – it has already made a change. When I was fourteen my mother took me to my first ‘grown up’ theatre production. It was Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, performed at The Pomegranate Theatre in Chesterfield by the Young Vic. They had cast the Capulets as ‘White’ actors and the Montagues as ‘Black’ actors and the resonances with the riots in Manchester’s Moss Side together with the Apartheid struggle in South Africa were unmistakeable. It was a piece of theatre which changed the direction my life took in many ways; an absolutely foundational moment of revelation of politics and theatre and poetry.

Repressive regimes begin their censorships and culls with political opponents and poets. It’s not the economists, the statisticians, the marketing experts, policy makers or pie chart designers who are deemed dangerous. It’s those who take a stand and those who, following the words of the poet R.S. Thomas, have a way with words which ‘enters the intellect by way of the heart.’

The German theatre maker Brecht in his discussion of what he termed Epic Theatre, wrote of two different effects of theatre and of watching suffering on stage, summarised as follows:

“The pain of this person overwhelms me, because there is no way out for them.”
“The pain of this person overwhelms me, because there is a way out for them.”1

It is the latter form of theatre which Brecht tried to make with his many experimental forms. The tradition of Applied Theatre and of political theatre owes much to his work. It acts in the world with theatre simply because it believes theatre can change people.

Refugee Boy the book, the play script and the production have rightly been acclaimed. As we discuss the content together during the post-show discussion there are representatives from the Scottish Refugee Council, Aberlour Trust who support a programme of guardianship for young unaccompanied minors like Alem, the ‘Refugee Boy’ in the play. Two members of the cast who have clearly come to think long and hard about answers to the question posed have joined on stage, together with a young person of refugee background and the director Gail McIntyre. Joyce MacMillan, theatre critic for The Scotsman, hosts the discussion with gentle, thoughtful and intelligent questions.

For once, I’m on stage as ‘myself’, not primarily in my academic role, though having worked in and made theatre at many points in my life, and having a lively academic interest in the field I’m never quite sure what this means. Part of what the show performed was the story of fostering and some of the moments of catharsis and critique were the excruciatingly heart breaking moments of watching Siobhan – the foster mother -, fall apart in private and with her partner as she contemplated the very real possibilities of loss and the unimaginable labyrinthine agony of bureaucratic ways of dealing with raw human lives. Five years ago I’d become such a mother and I had fallen apart in private as Siobhan does. I thought life might end, but it didn’t. I thought it might be too much to bear. In the end it wasn’t (I wrote of the consequences of this academically in ‘Voicing Solidarity’).

Watching Refugee Boy was like watching a documentary of my own recent life. It was difficult but also wonderful to see the truth told, by such an energised cast, and such a lyrical adaptation.

Joyce MacMillan takes a straw poll of the audience, all committed to staying on to hear the discussion and asks how many have had their attitudes changed by watching Refugee Boy or the production which preceded it “The Glasgow Girls”. I know many of those sitting in the audience already have deep understanding of the issues and are unlikely to raise their hands, feeling, perhaps much as I do, that the play is real, and tells the truth about the system and the injustices.

Well over a quarter of the audience nonetheless raise their hands.

And then to hear the girl from the audience ask the question I began with – Yes …

“Thank you – whoever you are – for asking the question. Never stop asking that question.”
1. “Der Zuschauer des dramatischen Theaters sagt: Ja, das habe ich auch schon gefühlt. – So bin ich. – Das ist natürlich. – Das wird immer so sein. – Das Leid dieses Menschen erschüttert mich, weil es keinen Ausweg für ihn gibt. – Das ist große Kunst: da ist alles selbstverständlich. – Ich weine mit den Weinenden, ich lache mit den Lachenden. / Der Zuschauer des epischen Theaters sagt: Das hätte ich nicht gedacht. – So darf man es nicht machen. – Das ist höchst auffällig, fast nicht zu glauben. – Das muß aufhören. – Das Leid dieses Menschen erschüttert mich, weil es doch einen Ausweg für ihn gäbe. – Ich lache mit den Weinenden, ich weine über den Lachenden” (S. 54f.)


3 comments on “Refugee Boy

  1. resistmilitarismpoppy
    March 14, 2014

    Alison, thank you for sharing your experience with us, and keeping the conversation going. It’s really inspiring. I am going to see Refugee Boy this saturday, and now even more looking forward.

    I’ll also be going to BELONG before the performance – an afternoon of celebration with music, song, and poetry organised by a group of Scots, refugees and people seeking asylum, reflecting on the issues raised in the play.

    See here to read more and book a place – it’s free!


  2. juleshope
    March 14, 2014

    Thank you, Alison, for this post and for your answer on Wednesday evening to the young girl. That young girl is my daughter and living proof that theatre really can change lives and open people to new ideas.
    Last year, when she was ten years old, I took Cara to see Glasgow Girls which had a profound effect on her. I thought she would enjoy the singing and dancing, but she left the theatre in tears and cried all the way home. She was devastated to realise how unjust the world could be and determined to do something about it.
    She has spent her time since that production researching and passionately explaining to anyone who will listen (and even some who won’t!) why the system must change.
    We returned to Glasgow Girls a few weeks ago and she was still as moved, but this time had a wealth of other information and stories to draw on. She loved the dramatisation of one of her favourite novels, Refugee Boy, and was overwhelmed when every person on the panel answered her question. She said it was the best night of her life!
    She went back to school on Thursday, proudly wearing her Glasgow Girls badge on her blazer, and told her friends and asked to meet with staff to discuss Refugee Week.
    Thank you for your encouragement. I am a very proud mum.


    • Alison Phipps
      March 17, 2014

      Dear juleshope, Its one of the sad features of work in the field of migration that I am wary of ‘reading the comments’ – but this one has made my day! You are right to be so proud. Do let me know if there are other ways we can support her passion!


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