I watched Prime Minister’s Question time this week because …oh I have no idea why I watched it. Bang on time, in between waffling nonsense and notably (well it’s not so notable these days really) not answering questions, was the usual rubbish about the menace of small boats and channel crossings. The Prime Minister and Home Office could really do with (Ed: multiple swear words removed) and going to Theatre Royal Stratford East to see How Not To Down, based on the true story of a young refugee coming to London.
In 2002, at the age of just eleven years old, Dritan Kastrati (played by Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill, Sam Reuben and Dritan Kastrati)was sent from Kosovo to London, crossing on small boats and hiding in lorries. We know that he made it; this is not a story with that kind of suspense, because Kastrati both stars in, and co-wrote (with Nicola McCartney) this production.
Early on the cast declare “I am Ditran” together. It is effective, and the early resonance with Spartacus lets the audience see this as the story of one journey for Kastrati but also as a depiction of the many refugees that have, and continue to take, that journey. Building on this, impressive direction by Neil Bettles and movement work from Bettles and Jonnie Riordan allow us to follow shifting character changes with never a moment’s confusion, despite the cast of five playing over thirty characters and each playing Dritan at different points throughout. The production additionally uses movement and physical theatre to show the long journey: bodies are crammed into small boats; metal barriers define queues and change to illustrate more queues, shifting locations and countries. This is clear, easy to follow and it looks great, but there is also a lot of narration and exposition, which comes close to overload on occasion.
Once in London, there is a damning indictment of the care system as Dritan’s wants and needs are left not just unmet but ignored by a series of social workers and officials who seem to forget that their job is to help, support and protect children. The rigid system sees him bounce around foster homes, separated from family and friends and placed with people who he can’t talk to or understand. This feels almost more harrowing than the journey. Getting to London is presented quite matter-of-factly, but the experience in the uncaring system shows more pain and more frustration, having much more of an impact on Dritan and his well-being, both as a child and an adult.
A few years older and still unsettled, Dritan returns home to see family, to find out more about why he was sent away. He feels lost; there is a gap between the language and culture that he was sent away from and which is fading from his memory, and the life that he now has in London. Where is his home? Where does he belong? These are questions that many immigrants find themselves asking but are even more resonant for someone forced to flee their home as a young child.
In the end How Not to Drown succeeds in no small part due to the presence and involvement of Kastrati himself. Interactions with bullies in school and uncaring social workers could come off as contrived, but his being on stage, showing and telling his story as it happened, brings a level of authenticity to everything present. There was a definite emotional reaction from both him and the audience, as he took a well-deserved bow.
Written by Nicola McCartney & Dritan Kastrati
Director and Movement by Neil Bettles
Movement by Jonnie Riordan
Design & Costume by Becky Minto
Composition & Sound Design by Alexandra Faye Braithwaite
Lighting by Zoe Spurr
How Not to Drown plays at Stratford East until Saturday 11 February. Further information and tickets can be found here.