Friday 19 April 2019

Lives in Translation doesn't translate

Lives in Translation, Civic Theatre, Tallaght

Julie Maxwell, Raquel McKee and Tony Flynn in 'Lives in Translation' at the Civic Theatre
Julie Maxwell, Raquel McKee and Tony Flynn in 'Lives in Translation' at the Civic Theatre

Emer O'Kelly sees a dreary socio-political chicken and egg situation.

The political situation in Somalia, as in some other African countries, is parlous to the point of tragedy. The human fallout would seem to be a dramatically ideal topic for a play: pain, loss, fear, displacement, death, even de-humanisation. How could you go wrong?

You could, can, and in the case of playwright Rosemary Jenkinson, did. Her play Lives in Translation purports to tell the story of Asha, a woman originally from Mogadishu, seeking refugee status on the island of Ireland for more than 10 years.

Her family (those not butchered at the hands of armed rebel militias) are scattered, with one daughter still hiding out in Mogadishu, another safe but displaced after escaping to Italy, and she herself shunted between Dublin and Belfast with the odd side trip to the UK mainland for the compiling of report and review after report and review: none successful. She falls between the stools of dual bureaucracy, indifference, misunderstanding and downright hostility.

It begins in Mosney. Asha had never heard of direct provision. Actually, she'd never heard of Ireland. She was trying to get to the US when she boarded a refugee boat on the shores of Libya, having walked there from her own country.

She has committed no crime, but is treated like a criminal, offered friendship only by a sympathetic religious pastor in Belfast. Finally, having taught herself English, she fights her own case, refusing to accept what she regards as the dubious qualifications of those supposedly working on her behalf, with her personal horror story, including rape at the hands of soldiers, emerging through the interviews.

Some of the people around her are successful in their cases and appeals. She is not; but she is not prepared to give up. She just wants the same rights as we have, she tells the audience: she too is a human being.

It should be enough to wring your heart. Instead, it is lifeless, even boring, and seemingly endless. There is no sense of anguish, none of loneliness, not even an engagement at the description of being forced to watch family members carried off , never to be seen again.

The last play of Rosemary Jenkinson's I saw was The Bonefire, a viciously penetrating black comedy of Belfast life on a housing estate on the eve of the Twelfth. Jenkinson knows her warring religious factions in her home territory - but her examination of an equal if not greater tragedy is without passion or drama.

Nor is this Kabosh production at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght (sponsored by among others, Belfast City Council, the Community Relations Council and the Arts Councils north and south of the border) helped by the appallingly static production values: three actors (not very good actors, if these performances are anything to go by) wandering on and off stage to stand in a straight line.

Raquel McKee is neither tragic, pathetic, nor feisty as Asha throughout, with Julie Maxwell and Tony Flynn playing all the other roles with what look like understandable levels of embarrassment.

Direction is by Paula McFetridge, and one can only say that public funding for the arts is meant to go to arts projects - not to what amount to prosy and sanctimoniously self-satisfied lectures.


The production raises (not for the first time) the entire issue of what is generally described as community/political "engagement with the arts."

Translated, that effectively can mean the hi-jacking of art forms to serve an agenda which has nothing to do with art. Sometimes that agenda may well be worthwhile. Often the people bearing it are passionately convinced of their own moral high ground. They feel not merely entitled, but morally bound to "raise consciousness".

But the arts are not part of the social services. They are not there to keep people off the streets and out of the pubs; they are not there to further a particular political worldview.

They can, of course, do all that. Art is the greatest civilising influence in society, and increasing civilisation almost automatically leads to increased political awareness as well as increased social awareness.

But putting a sociological topic on a stage or in a film does not make that project art: the art must come first. Telling audiences that they have a duty to admire and applaud a play, film, painting, project, because it is worthwhile in intent will, more often than not, turn people away from the message itself.

Artists with what they believe is an important message must nurture it in good art: if the art is a play, the author needs to set out to write a piece of theatre art that is gripping, and dramatically effective, and let the message seep through. It doesn't work the other way round: it ends up being a sledgehammer

Increasingly we are seeing political/sociological campaigns that masquerade as art, and because we live in a politically correct era, they receive artistic subvention, and far too often that subvention comes from the public purse. The Arts Councils, north and south, need to remember that they are there to further good art. Political campaigns should be funded elsewhere.

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