Belfast Festival at Queen's: Sanctuary

Belfast Festival at Queen's- Sanctuary by Theatre of Witness.Photo by Declan Keeney.

Belfast Festival at Queen's- Sanctuary by Theatre of Witness.Photo by Declan Keeney.

Theatre of Witness' - Sanctuary- Photo by Declan Keeney

Theatre of Witness' - Sanctuary- Photo by Declan Keeney

“Maybe tomorrow will be my day. Maybe tomorrow I will begin my new life,” concludes Maryama Yuusuf, a Somalian mother of nine who fled her country following war, famine, slavery and rape. Assisted by an ‘agent’ out of her native land, she had hoped to go to America to be reunited with her family. However, she was first taken to London, then Dublin, then Belfast. She has lived, or waited rather, in hospitals, hostels, detention centres – some of which were so dirty rats crawled out of the walls. She is not allowed to work or receive education. It is nine years since that journey began, and those nine years have not offered sanctuary, but further turmoil and personal disempowerment.
The fourth segment of the Playhouse ‘Theatre of Witness’ cycle, Sanctuary, is introduced by Artistic Director Teya Sepinuck as an exploration of what safe haven means, and what home means. The connotations of the language Sepinuck uses may lull the audience into a false sense of ease, as does the gentle milieu the entire theatrical encounter is cloaked in, with Norah Jones’s whispery crooning enveloping the space as the theatre staff try and pack in a full house. ‘Sanctuary’, ‘haven’, ‘oasis’, ‘trust’, ‘love’, ‘faith’ – these are the words embedded in the programme and Sepinuck’s introduction. Yet, one by one, we hear stories of exile, imprisonment, abuse, torture, and loss. Sanctuary is what they seek; hell is what they endured.
Six performers, or ‘real’ people, tell their real stories directly to the audience, though not in monologue form. Stylised and choreographed movement sequences made up of trust exercises, against the backdrop of live music, ensure these personal historical narratives are conveyed theatrically, yet sincerely. For Everson Taelo, Loyd Ncube and Maryama Yuusuf, their exile has traversed the international borders of Zimbabwe and Somalia. For Margaret McGuckin, her story begins at the orphanage her parents sent her to, where abuse was a frequent occurrence. For Ryan Doherty, the suffering he endured arose from a deep depression that lasted years, provoked by a series of life events he still does not understand. For Therese McCann, sanctuary means a mother’s love; the love she did not receive from her own mother as a result of the stress of living through evacuation and violence during The Troubles, as well as resulting from her teenage pregnancy. Running from gunfire, McCann went into premature labour and her baby girl did not survive. Decades later, she tries to give that mother’s love to her son, as he lies in a hospital bed in the wake of further sectarian violence.
The set design, flushed in warm pinks with hanging leaves, is composed of two structural elements, a doorway, and a larger undefined piece which bears associations of foreign lands, an alter perhaps, and outside spaces. Passing through the doorway at the end, the performers’ crossing was telling of their readiness and desire to move forward, and leave these histories behind. At the end of the performance, they regrouped on the larger set piece, and it seemed to mould them as one. They looked at the audience, as we looked at them.
A key part of this production is directed at making an audience realise it is not a passive group here to observe stories, and then go home unchanged. Sepinuck is vocal regarding her beliefs in the transformative power of the theatrical experience, and she intends for the audience to bear witness and be challenged. Indeed, on leaving the theatre, the audience was handed reflection sheets and letters of support to sign for the asylum of the three African performers, later sent to the Home Secretary. Thus, when these performers gazed on the audience, they were not saying goodbye and thank you for listening, but signalling: we require your action post-performance.
This performance taps into centuries of Irish and Anglo-Irish history through these connections with Zimbabwe and Somalia. The three performers seeking asylum in Northern Ireland escaped violence in their countries at the hands of both the military and local tribes. In Somalia in particular, the effects of the famine as well as the violence mean living conditions are unbearable. One of the many questions this performance provokes is, will Northern Ireland (and indeed the Republic of Ireland) – a place where the memories of famine and civil war are inscribed on landscape and society, and where emigration has offered haven, safety and survival for many of its citizens – offer the same for those now seeking a life here due to similar traumatic events? Will this society offer them sanctuary?
Miriam Haughton is a researcher at Creative Exchange Northern Ireland (CXNI), an AHRC knowledge exchange project run by the University of Ulster and Queen’s University Belfast.
  • Review
  • Theatre

Belfast Festival at Queen's: Sanctuary by Theatre of Witness

17-19 Sept; 24-25 October 2013

Produced by Theatre of Witness
In Brien Friel Theatre at Queen's University Belfast

Conception, Script and Artistic Direction: Teya Sepinuck

Music Composition: Brian Irvine

Set Design: Kate Moylan

Lighting Design: Mark Galione

Sound Design: Michael Kielty Jr.

Puppeteer: Aja Marneweck

Film: Declan Keeney, Echo Gate Productions

With: Everson Taelo, Margaret McGuckin, Theresa McCann, Maryama Yuusuf,

Ryan Doherty, Loyd Ncube

Musicians: Alexandra Desbruslais, Niamh McGowan, Phil Smyth

Film Performers: Rina Keyes, Martin Collins, Carol Lundy, David Armstrong

Presented as part of the 2013 Belfast Festival at Queen’s.