Simon Ward reviews How Not To Drown at Theatre Royal Stratford East
This is a powerful and important piece of theatre. It provides a counterblast to the prevailing anti-immigrant rhetoric from the government and commentariat and it offers a personal account of a lived experience which could not be further from the caricature of scheming migrants determined to game the British system. Instead we hear the story of a child, barely ten years old, sent to join his brother in England by parents desperate to save him from the turmoil after the Kosovan War. Bewildered, frightened, and leaving behind everything he knows, without a word of English, the distress is unimaginable. But Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati force us to imagine it, and to live through it as he narrates. This is indeed Dritan’s own story – as well as writing he also plays himself and early on he tells us that everything we see happened to him. If anything it brings it too close to the bone, as we witness him replaying and reliving the physical and emotional rigours he has been through.
Dritan narrates the story and is on stage virtually continuously – occasionally the strain tells. All the other characters, including Dritan himself at various points in his life, are played by the cast (Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill, Samuel Reuben). Director Neil Bettles, who also choreographs the action with Jonnie Riordan, brings imagination and flair to the task of creating multiple scenarios with minimal props, the actors’ bodies and an elevated square stage of bare floorboards which can tilt and turn like a raft tossed about on the sea. We live with them as the childhood family scrapes turn more serious with gun training – a consequence of the lawlessness and unpredictability of living in a remote, contested area – and we share Dritan’s shock and pain at being sent away.
More painful even than the separation from his parents and the horrors of the journey to get to England is the way Dritan is treated when he finally arrives. For the authorities he is a problem they could do without. His brother is too young to look after him so he has to be placed in care. The foster families he stays with provide him with the basic necessities of life but what he craves most of all is love – what he calls ‘feeling’ someone, so he can make a connection and find some human warmth. But it is as if they have been actively trained to avoid building up too much attachment because of the pain of separation when the child inevitably moves on. Only once is there the tantalising possibility of finding what he needs when he is placed in respite care and the carers want to keep him – but the system will not allow it.
At school too, the system fails him. When he is bullied because he is a misfit, he fights back, and he is the one who is punished with exclusion, while the perpetrator seems to get away with a talking to. Even backed up by his foster father, it is clear that the system is stacked against him. And at sixteen Dritan decides to go back to see his family in Kosovo. This is when the full devastating extent of his deracination becomes clear – he can no longer fit in or find the right words in the place that he has been dreaming of as home. Where does he belong? Where can he be accepted?
The most powerful image of the play occurs right at the end, when the other players retreat and Dritan stands alone on the bare stage, radio static noise and darkness engulfing him. There are still issues to resolve, but he is nevertheless standing proud in spite of all, defiant, perhaps hopeful, a survivor.
How Not To Drown is playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square, Stratford, London E15 1BN until 11th February.
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