Immigration. At the epicentre of the political turbulence that has followed the ‘Leave’ vote just over a week ago, and an issue that feeds off fear to create societal confusion and often ill-informed hatred, the subject of Josh Azouz’s play is topical, delving into the realities of refugee life, and demonstrating how for many child refugees a Peter Pan existence would be preferable to what ensues once they have leapt the child-adult divide.
In 70 minutes, a cast of only three acts as an inverted family. Azouz plays with our preconceptions: the child represents the authorities, the mother is helpless and in love with her foster child, the man is what once was the son.
The play begins with Enayat’s birthday. He doesn’t want to turn 18, despite his foster mother’s (and lover’s) excitement that he has the potential to get the grades to go to Imperial College London to study Medicine. Yet, at 18, the fact that Enayat is a refugee from Afghanistan and lacks both passport and birth certificate, means that the education and promise offered to him during this life in the UK are about to be taken away from him.
The authorities take no time to sweep in and Azouz’s decision to cast a child as the various authoritative roles (policeman, social worker) means that their hegemony is initially laughable. Equipped with toy dog, light-up trainers and a tube of smarties, the police seem to pose no real threat to Enayat and Sal’s life together. Yet as Enayat is taken away to a detention centre, Azouz shows (as he does throughout the play) that appearances can be deceptive, and the child’s power becomes dangerous and scary.
There is an obvious attack on the authorities, exposing their decisions on refugees as mere child’s play. The smarties analogy which lends the play its title, simultaneously demonstrates the difficulty that the government face as they try to protect British citizens from the ‘one poisonous smartie’ in amongst the harmless others, yet also undermines the decision-making process that they follow, reducing it to a child’s sweet and a guessing game on Enayat’s true age. Azouz presents a flawed Orwellian system, where the important aspects surrounding Enayat’s status as a refugee, and the reasons why he chose to come to the UK, are ignored.
Azouz does not shy away from the brutal realities of detention centre life, referencing lack of cleanliness and hygiene, and rape. Throughout the play we watch Enayat’s mental state slip from denial, into anger, and then suicidal depression. As Sal’s devotion intensifies, reminiscing over the joys Enayat brought to the mundanity of her existence, Enayat, treated like a criminal in a cage, pushes her away. Their relationship acts as a modern Oedipus, and despite any initial moral quandary you may have, it comes to act as reversed tragedy of the play. The final mirrored scenes of the pair at the denouement of the piece act as a powerful emotional climax. The universe has destined them for each other, bound in love, yet the law, and authorities, deem that they must be kept apart.
Commissioned by Magdalen College School for Oxford’s Festival of the Arts this production by Three Streets packs a bittersweet, emotional punch; it had me in tears.