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Review: When Swallows Cry

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When Swallows CryIn a world with no redeeming ideology, can we choose to be good when the going gets bad? This is the central theme of Mike van Graan’s new play.

Invited by Ibsen International, a Norwegian Theatre Company, Mike van Graan is one of eight playwrights from around the world to produce new works on the theme of migration. When Swallows Cry is the first of the eight works to be presented, with all eight set to be staged at the prestigious Shanghai International Theatre Festival in October 2017.

The small, airless and hot ambience of the Mannie Manim Theatre at the Market was uncomfortable for the audience but certainly added to the stifling and oppressive scenarios we were about to witness.

Van Graan has interspersed three different scenarios about migration set in three different countries – the first involves a white Canadian NGO worker being held hostage by two Somali soldiers in a jungle near their village; the second focuses on a Somalian refugee seeking asylum at an airport in America and the third concerns a Zimbabwean migrant in an immigration detention centre in Australia.

With the focus on the fragile and ever-changing relationships between the protagonists, Van Graan illuminates those moments where change is possible – when the chance to act humanely flickers momentarily. Some boldly take that chance while others retreat behind their walls of indoctrinated propaganda and see only ‘the other’ and not the human being. I did wonder, somewhat uneasily, about whether we try so hard to understand the other side that we sometimes provide them with a coherent political ideology which many of today’s nihilistic protagonists don’t actually possess.

Director Lesedi Job explained how she had to work hard to extricate the intricately woven strands of the play’s three scenarios, and then work to reintegrate them into a whole play with only three actors playing three very different roles. Directing three men was a challenge that Job has always been up for, and both she and Van Graan felt that a man would have directed differently. Job felt she was able to help the men release their inner vulnerability more easily.

The actors had to cope with speaking lines in unknown African languages as well as different accents. One actor described how he spent days hanging out near the taxi ranks in Joburg, sitting in cafes and talking to Somalis to check if his intonation was correct.

Staging and light was minimal but effective – the crew used a single bulb to create an interrogation scene one moment and a prison cell the next. And the use of TV screens helped to create the taut intensity felt by the audience, which was a full house on the opening weekend.

When Swallows Cry is a worthy (yet somewhat uncomfortable) viewing that is certainly well put together and well acted.

Sharmini Brookes

When Swallows Cry runs at the Market Theatre until 5 February 2017.

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