A performer stands on stage, but the lights have yet to go down. He stands before the audience in silence, making eye contact, expression unreadable. Eventually, he speaks: “This is a place of performance, isn’t it?”
The Claim follows its three characters – the claimant, the interpreter, and the interviewer – through the process of an ‘asylum screening’, as claimant Serge is forced to make his case to remain in the country he now calls home. An uncomfortable and intense viewing experience, The Claim seeks to convey what it truly feels like to seek refuge in another country, and to deconstruct our society’s ingrained ideas about the concept of asylum and those who claim it.
Through clever representation of language barriers (and resultant miscommunication), The Claim reveals how our assumptions and prejudices can lead to an imposed narrative. The audience becomes privy to the entirety of Serge’s true story, which he struggles in vain to communicate to his interviewers (who, to a disorientated claimant and audience, often seem more like interrogators). Yet the only language he can fluently communicate with any of the others is French, and thus he must talk to his interviewer indirectly via the interpreter – a character who emphasises his role as interpretation, rather than translation. In this way the other characters misinterpret and make assumptions about Serge’s past, often deliberately ignoring what he is trying to tell them in favour of what suits their own narrative. Thus the play rapidly spirals into heightened tension and greater cognitive dissonance between the characters, whilst the audience can do nothing but watch helplessly. This discomfort is exaggerated by a minimalistic stage, consisting of several bright, glaring strip-lights and a single chair raised on a podium to further isolate its occupant.
The dialogue is tightly and effectively scripted, coupling nigh-comical absurdity with a stark and unnerving realism – the audience is spurred from laughter in one moment to aghast disbelief in the next. With the on-stage lighting and background noise rising to unbearable levels at key moments, the audience is given some semblance of how overwhelming the screening experience might be. Serge, meanwhile, is treated less like an individual and more like just another object in transience, as his place in the country is debated before him by people who do not take the time to truly understand or listen to his story. The interviewer and the interpreter are not vilified, as such – they are simply shown to be ordinary people, doing their jobs, as part of their ordinary lives. Yet in the case of Serge, and many others, this may not be enough. It came as an unsettling realisation that, as open-minded as we members of the Bike Shed audience may have thought we were, these native English characters are indeed our reference point in The Claim. They represent how we think about those seeking asylum and refuge in the UK: something that’s often easy to dismiss as just a statistic, as being taken care of by somebody else. The Claim aims to subvert that by putting us in a displaced person’s shoes, even just for 80 minutes.
The interviewing characters represent two differing attitudes towards asylum seekers – a sort of nervous sympathy from the interpreter, and sceptical mistrust from the caseworker. Both of these viewpoints, even if initially well-meaning, are clearly shown to exercise forms of prejudice: Serge’s story, meanwhile, is repeatedly shown not to suit these pre-supposed narratives. They assume that he is living on the streets – he is not. They assume that he was involved in violence and criminal activity before coming to the UK – he was not. The audience is increasingly reminded that individual cases can never quite slot comfortably into an imposed stereotype, and whilst the interviewers talk over Serge, obstructing and mistranslating him, the actor stares desperately out at the audience. He doesn’t ask for sympathy – just for understanding.
It came as an unsettling realisation that, as open-minded as we members of the Bike Shed audience may have thought we were, these native English characters are indeed our reference point in ‘The Claim’.
The UK Government’s policy on claiming asylum states that, to be eligible, claimants must have “left your own country and be unable to go back because you fear persecution”. They must also have “failed to get protection from authorities in your own country”. The exact manner of “persecution” is further stipulated, and must be due to either race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or “anything else that puts you at risk because of the social, cultural, religious or political situation in your country, for example, your gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation”. This seems like a fairly broad and inclusive spectrum, yet the dialogue in The Claim – based firmly on true accounts – suggests that in reality, the process can prove arbitrary and exclusive. Once Serge has managed to communicate that he is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), his interviewer is quick to state – despite Serge’s personal fears, which are painfully obvious to the audience – that “isn’t [DRC] safe again now?”. The resulting image is that of an individual, simply trying to survive, swept under the rug by an impersonal and bureaucratic system.
The process the audience sees Serge undergo is officially termed a “screening”, the formal action by which an individual may register their “asylum claim”. In a screening, claimants are asked why they want asylum, and also whether they can back up their claim with any evidence or documentation. Many, of course, cannot. Like Serge, they are then reliant solely upon their story – and the goodwill of their caseworker. The Claim emphasises how, through miscommunication and rushed translation, Serge’s story becomes something warped and distorted. This is echoed in the Government guidelines, which allow – notably – for an “interpreter”.
The Claim doesn’t seek to make its audience feel guilty. Neither does it presume to tell its audience what to think – it merely encourages its audience to do just that: think. Think about our assumptions; think about our prejudices, the way we view those we see as outsiders, whether we intend to be well-meaning or otherwise. Most importantly, the play is about opening a dialogue – a true communication, not just an interpretation. With a post-show discussion between cast and audience, and a ‘listening station’ set up outside to enable other claimants to convey their own true stories, The Claim aims to break down barriers – and to cross borders.