This is a review from March 2013.
Refugee Boy is now on a national tour and is about to start a new run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
So I thought it was an ideal time to dust this interview off!!
WEST YORKSHIRE PLAYHOUSE
ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR (LITERARY)
Leeds Book Club caught up with Alex Chisholm a few weeks ago, for a quick chat between putting the final touches on Refugee Boy and collaborating on Sherlock and Doctor Faustus.
Refugee Boy will open on the 9th of March and run until the 30th. Copies of the play and book will be available from the Playhouse.
The interview will be posted in two parts. This section shall focus on Refugee Boy while part 2 will look at the inner workings of the Playhouse.
Thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us. We appreciate that must be incredibly busy at the moment.
Refugee Boy is a 2001 novel by Benjamin Zephaniah about a young adult named Alem. He is abandoned in the UK due to conflicts in his country of origin.
How does something like this production of Refugee Boy get started? Does a writer or director approach you?
It happens in all sorts of different ways. In this particular instance it was our associate Director that deals specifically with young people and their theatre. She knew Benjamin Zephaniah and the book and said ‘I’d like to do a version of this’. Looking back through old files the other day, I came across my original document that had a list of potential adaptors. I came up with that list, we talked about it, we liked Lemn Sissay (a poet and playwright) – it turned out that he had himself a very similar history so that all dovetailed very well with the book. It’s been a very long journey getting it to this place for all sorts of different reasons.
It’s pretty much there now. Final few tweaks to do. It’s pretty much there. Then again, it’ll change again in rehearsal. And it’ll open on the 9th of March with its first performance with rehearsal beginning about four weeks before that.
Refugee Boy – is it an accurate portrayal of the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict?
There isn’t, in fact, in the book that much detail about the nature of the conflict and the little bit that’s in there isn’t necessarily terribly accurate, but that’s not the point of the book. The point of the book was to follow the journey of the Refugee Boy himself.
The two tiny flashbacks that he does in Ethiopia and Eritrea – the whole piece takes place in England – there’s this sort of prologue of two tiny snippets and they are intentionally abstract and not realistic and very similar to each other another.
Benedict – one of our contacts – is himself from Ethiopia and Eritrea and he came over as a young man – not quite as young as the character in the book. Benedict says that you can pick at it; you can tear away parts and say ‘Well actually that wouldn’t really happen that way’ but on the other hand he read that book as a sort of alternative narrative of his own life because essentially the story was his and a lot of the emotional journey and the journey of adjustment to a different country was absolutely his.
You wouldn’t read Refugee Boy in order to gain insights into the Ethiopian and Eritrean conflicts. You do so in order to gain insights into what it is to be a refugee, an asylum seeker in this country.
Refugee Boy – the Charity sector
Since getting involved with this particular project, we’ve become much more in contact with the org and people and agencies that work in that area in our region. We’ve been struck both by the immense generosity and hard work and selflessness and kindness of people who work and volunteer.
And also about the terrible circumstances and deprivations which go along with that. In particular destitution being the big issue we’re dealing with at the moment – there’s a particular thing that’s happening right at the moment with the way that housing is changing which – I imagine you’re aware of – it’s causing particular problems.
Refugee Boy – won the Portsmouth Book Award – and certainly caught the zeitgeist. Author Benjamin Zephaniah is renowned for his music, poetry and writing. This is a particularly inherently human book revolving around isolation, alienation and finding your own place in the world.
Have you spoken with him about the book or the WY Playhouse adaptation of it?
I haven’t spoken to him directly to him about it. However, I’ve read and heard him speak about it. I don’t know if there was a particular incident that got him interested in this but I know that he himself felt empathy for people who have gone through that experience. Coming from a Caribbean background, but one where he felt that he understood that isolation and being misunderstood as a young person. He also has a keen sense of justice that comes from his background and having experienced injustice. As a Rastafarian, who is practising and religious and spiritual; he particularly had an interest in this journey. [That of] seeming outcast and that essential notion of finding a family.
The Ethiopian and Eritrean conflict was reaching a certain point around the time that he was writing it so there was a public awareness at that time.
How did you find the right playwright to adapt this novel?
Lemn Sissay who did the adaptation, is also a poet. Actually it’s one of those strange coincidences that happen in life. I had read a play of his called Storm I think (written for Contact theatre in Manchester) and it was set in a children’s home and I felt that it captured the voice of those young people extremely well. It was his first play and incorporated some poetry into the play writing. And he wrote those young people in a well rounded, un-clichéd, unsentimental way – which is very rare.
They were first and foremost young people and they happened to be in a situation and they reacted to that situation. Rather than them being types. That’s what made me think about him in the first instance. Because there is a part of the book where Alem goes to a children’s home and then a foster home so writing a piece where the main character is a young person. He’d directed a lot of young people. There was something in Lemn’s writing where I felt that he could find that character.
So I called him up, said that we were interested in adapting this book called Refugee Boy by Ben Zephaniah and had he heard of it? He said no, what’s it about and I summarised ‘it’s about a young boy, born half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, abandoned in this country and raised in the care system’. And he just exclaimed ‘You’re kidding me. That’s my life.’
And that is, it’s genuinely his life. He is half Ethiopian and half Eritrean, his mother came to this country to give birth to him here and then abandoned him here and went back. Lemn’s gone on a huge journey – which is quite well documented – to discover what his past is. And he started off in a children’s home; was then fostered; then he was essentially rejected by his foster home; returned to the children’s home; grew up there and left at 18 years and that’s when he was given his papers. This was when he discovered his birth name. He’d had a completely different name up until the age of 18. He gravitated towards Manchester, discovered poetry and found his voice and became, or was kind of taken up by John G at Contact and given a lot of support. Discovering that, he felt that he was the right person to take this on. He has brought a lot to the adaptation.
On making necessary changes from the original
There are some aspects of the play that are not actually in the books, but this was right. If you read the book, it reads very well but there are certain things missing that you’d want for a play. It’s telling you a story but the additional insight from any other characters apart from Alem can only be inferred.
It works in a novel but not as naturally as a play. So you don’t necessarily know what’s going on with Ruth or the foster parents. Basically they are ciphers. Although you do get a bit more from Alem’s father – the relationship between the two is fairly straight forward. There isn’t that much change in it.
So, Lemn has sort of added aspects to that; while retaining the story of the refugee boy; keeping the central premise of the piece, but there’s a very strong relationship between Alem and a friend of his from the children’s home that is totally invented. It doesn’t exist in the book.
You need people for your central character to talk to. Otherwise it’s a one man show. And funnily enough, Lemn has already done that show. He did it about his own life. It’s called ‘Something Dark’ and it’s absolutely brilliant. It’s a one man show.
But he’s done it. It’s not actually about refugee or asylum but about a young man coming to terms with having been abandoned – the search for identity.
You watch that show and think ‘you’re still standing?’ So I think it’s really…now we’re at a place where we have I think a really good play from a really good book. They are going to be there own things. Benjamin Zephaniah has read the play and was happy with it. He found it a bit strange – in that it is and isn’t his novel.
Different people have different levels on control. Benjamin has been very open and relaxed which has been lovely. It’s very good that it is happening.
Did you ever doubt that it would all come together?
The thing is that there is a burst of activity and then there would a long long while where nothing happened at all and then there’d be another burst of activity and then a long long while where nothing happened at all. But we’ve got the momentum back.
[All of this is of course worthwhile as] I think it is a play that will engage a lot of different people in a lot of different ways. I think that there are a lot of people who are broadly sympathetic to the issue around refuges and asylum seekers and will be interested in it for that reason. I think that there are people who will be interested in it because they’ve heard of Benjamin Zephaniah or enjoy his poetry and his writing. And maybe people who’ll try it because maybe their kids had to study it in school and hopefully they will bring them along.
I’m hoping that it will reach out to quite a broad audience.
Now the production is coming together, how involved are you at this point?
To an extent…personally I’m less involved now that the director Gail McIntyre [has taken the reins]. Certainly less once it goes into rehearsals. I’ll be coming to see it towards the end of rehearsal and once it goes into preview. I mean I’m very involved in how the events are happening so I’ll be working through the whole time and I’m probably more involved in this one that others because I’ve been so involved in the making of it. We’ll see. It depends on how much Lemn wants to be around. Whether there’s a need for me to manage the dynamic between how much you want it to be changed, how much you don’t want it to be changed.
Every production is different and needs different kinds of support.
Touch wood – it’s a huge tremendous success. Will it tour?
Our aim is to tour it the following year if we can make everything work out. Because Benjamin is a successful writer and that is a very popular book – it’s studied in schools – there is a certain amount of interest from other theatres. That’s the idea really. We’ll see; we’ll see what happens.
It’s not even always down to whether it’s a success. It’s down to money and what budgets are like and what other plays have been planned for [for other theatres].
And then of course, it’s onto the next stage of the project.
Well best of luck with the opening. And thanks so much for chatting with us.