Cargo is a powerful piece of drama. Taking over studio 2 in the Arcola theatre, it transforms the space into a shipping container. The audience are seated in the round on (uncomfortable) shrink-wrapped palettes. The lighting is dim and the sounds are those of huge cargo ships as they ready themselves to leave port. So, before the characters even begin their story, we are made to feel the discomfort and uncertainty of refugees attempting to escape their war torn homes.
At the play’s start the ship sets sail and we are plunged into an absolute darkness that is sustained for a disorientating length of time. The characters creep out from their hiding places and begin to suss one another out; we hear the fresh, nervy voices of siblings Joey and Iz, and the more fearful, knowing voice of Sarah. They can’t be sure of each other’s intentions while groping around in the dark, so they agree to take the risk and turn on the lights of their iPhones. Finally, we see their faces. Joey is the older sister of Ishmael, or Iz: she is defensive and worn looking, he is innocent, hopeful and trusting.
Trust is rare in this world of refugees; at no point does anyone reveal their true intentions for travel, where they originally come from or what finally prompted them to leave. In this sense the play is a thriller, with a succession of shocking revelations about the uses and exploitation of this human cargo. The most disturbing character of all is The American who bursts onto the stage part way through the performance, immediately unsettling the equilibrium established between Sarah and Joey. His smooth talking fools no one, and his eagerness to disclose details of his past only mark him out as a liar, an insider, or worse, a human trafficker.
Although clearly presented as a commentary on the current refugee crisis, the writer and founder of Calais Action, Tess Berry-Hart, has cleverly put some distance between current events by setting the narrative in an alternative reality where the West is overcome by Christian extremists. In this world the characters want to escape England and find refuge in Europe (the irony of this direction of travel is not lost on the Brexit conscious in the audience). By immersing the audience in the refugee experience, we are brought close enough to question how we would feel, react and cope in this brutal world. In this sense, the alternate reality works better at provoking thought than a purely contemporary, political play.
Cargo plays at Arcola until August 6th. Click here for more information