Many of us have spent the last year in various forms of confinement, our freedoms limited by lockdown and self-isolation. Coming at this time to writer Darren Donohue’s I and the Village we probably have an unusually acute empathy with the situation it reveals. At the Direct Provision Centre in the Republic of Ireland where this play is set, the inmates are not only isolated but effectively forgotten about, sometimes for years. This impressive piece of ensemble work from the Bread & Roses Theatre Company offers an emotional and challenging story that exposes the contemporary treatment of asylum seekers in a setting very close to home.
The story begins with Centre Manager, Carl, sensitively played by Mark Rush, installing new light bulbs in a sparse, institutionalised dormitory. The enigmatic and captivating Keicha (Funke Adeleke), a bold African-print scarf round her hair signalling her origins, suggests to Carl that speaking kindly to the bulb will encourage it to light up. Sure enough she is correct. Sadly, such thoughtful behaviour is less common towards the residents at the Centre, who become dehumanised from living in overcrowded spaces on an inadequate income and the constant monitoring. Their lives only become darker as the drama progresses.
We meet three women sharing this experience, witnessing their desperate struggle to retain identity, dignity and hope in an environment that crushes their spirit and diminishes their humanity. Chido Kunene is outstanding as Jeta, an old hand in the Centre. Articulate and compassionate, her character offers insight into the heights from which an individual can fall, losing her family, education and quality of life, until she is ultimately beaten by the system. Hannah (Laide Sonola) is still almost a child, streetwise and independent, but with a brutal backstory. Sonola makes incredible use of pause and silence to manifest unspoken trauma, demanding attention for her disregarded character. Keicha’s decline into mental illness is strikingly effective. Adeleke brilliantly holds the audience in the palm of her hand as her eyes stare wildly, and she retreats into her imagination, clinging onto what remains of her identity.
By the end of the play the three stories have become intertwined and the drama develops an almost ethereal quality as these disparate women, hurting in isolation, create their own spiritual village, based on qualities of compassion, humanity and hope. It is only as they come together in this way that the light in their eyes reignites and shines, in an emotional climax, indicative of the lesson from the beginning.
This is an eye-opening piece of work that challenges our knowledge of what abuses are happening under our noses. If things are like this in Ireland, what is the status in the UK? Are we upholding our responsibilities to these vulnerable people, and what is our place as individuals in the global village? It is a superb piece of storytelling, which uses minimal staging with enormous humanity to create a space to question culpability in allowing this to happen.
Written by: Darren Donohue
Directed by: Rebecca Pryle & Velenzia Spearpoint
Dramaturg by: Matilda Velevitch
Produced by: Natalie Chan
I and the Village is playing until 5 June, including a Saturday matinee. Further information and booking can be found via the below link.