Seeking a better life: Swarm

Dylan Moore is impressed by a site-specific theatrical performance that challenges some prevailing attitudes toward refugees






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By the time we reach the ‘Centre for Children’, a medical institution with precious few staff and absolutely no supplies, and a group of children are shouting ‘As far as I’m concerned, our country should be shut off completely’ at the tops of their voices, a sober hush has descended on the small audience crammed into the Butetown History and Arts Centre.

Swarm, a site-specific devised piece directed by Abdul Shayek and produced by Fio, takes its stimulus from David Cameron’s infamous comment about a ‘swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life’. A community cast, together with five professional actors, have created a show that is challenging, thought provoking and profoundly affecting. The claustrophobia and boredom of the transit centre will live long in the memories of all who see it.

The evening starts with the intrigue of being issued with a silver foil blanket and a number. We are told that we are to be processed and need to head to The Dome. Further narrative developments refer to a conflict in the West and a massive refugee crisis as people migrate towards the safety of the East. Fabricated images of Cardiff Bay and the Welsh countryside as a war zone are juxtaposed with real photos from the current crisis. The story is deliberately vague. We are in ‘lockdown’ and do not know what’s going on.

Within minutes of being inside the building, the muted atmosphere descends. The mild amusement of the ‘border game’ we have been playing is replaced by a dawning realisation that – even when you know it’s not for real – not knowing what will happen next is central to the refugee experience. Far from being a ‘swarm’ of chancers, as David Cameron so cruelly (and inaccurately) implied, the first thing you lose as a refugee – or any kind of migrant in the current climate – is control of your own destiny.

Here we are implicated in the drama, corralled along from room to room, part of the drama but also observers. Characters emerge, sketchily; it is a short piece, and there would certainly be scope for an expanded, more developed version. Loss is central. Dylan (Matthew David) is the stressed medic who has lost his team; Caz (Natalie Edward-Yesufu) is the traumatised refugee who has lost her husband; others have lost family members, their sense of self, everything.  

The longest scene happens in the transit centre, a makeshift camp where the press are banned. That doesn’t stop an NBC news reporter (Cara Jayne Readle) from attempting to describe the true conditions, even if her presence arouses suspicion from the volunteers. (‘Christina: ‘You just want a story. You don’t care what happens to the person’; Natalie: Bored is good. Bored means you’re safe, doesn’t it?’)

The children play games and draw pictures; we are all offered biscuits. ‘Bored is good. Bored means you’re safe, doesn’t it?’ The absence of windows lend authenticity to the sense of ‘lockdown’, but still the world manages to intrude through short audio and visual clips. Stark facts blu-tacked to the wall remind us of the world we live in for real: Afghanistan, 2015: 2 million dead; Syria, 2011: half a million. Yemen, 2015: 11,000; Nigeria, 2009: 21,000. While the media peddle supposed pull-factors, the push factors go unreported. It’s a useful antidote to the Eurocentric headlines that also included is the figure of 150,000 lives claimed by the drug wars played out in Mexico. The audio of the former Prime Minister’s ‘swarm’ remarks strikes a particularly bum note amid verbatim testimony from refugees.

Swarm is a worthy, worthwhile project that deserves a wider audience and a longer run. It is site-specific only in the sense that it coincides with the closure and sale of the Butetown History and Arts Centre, a place that has served and remembered Cardiff’s immigrant communities for decades. It could easily adapt itself to another, perhaps bigger, venue – and its message, of course, far from being in any respect specific, is universal.

Swarm is at the Butetown History and Arts Centre until Sunday. Dylan Moore is the IWA’s Comment & Analysis Editor.