Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to begin this review with the statement that Luca Silvestrini’s latest touring work, a study of intercultural friction in the messy migrant melting pot, is unnecessary. That, in the six decades since the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, the many communities that make up modern Britain have learned to rub along; that racial and religious tensions are unloved relics of the past. But sadly, that’s not the case.
The reality is that the work’s central premise – that we are all irredeemably bad at understanding or respecting one another – seems to have greater resonance today than at any point since the bad old days of the SPG. Perhaps more worrying than incidents of jackbooted extremism is the rise of low-level, dinner-table bigotry, the kind that worries about the effects of immigration policy on house prices, that keeps speakers of other languages and eaters of other foods in a mental box marked “other” to be enjoyed from a safe distance.
Border Tales begins with a clever ensemble jumble, a crowd of figures uncertain whether to embrace one another or defensively duck away, and somehow doing both at the same time. Bodies collide and pile up in corners, locked in a dance of discomfort that echoes throughout the show. Seven strangers, stuck on a stage together, unable to commit to as simple a thing as a handshake – it sounds like the setup for the most awkward John Hughes film ever.
“Awkward” is the word that kept coming to my mind throughout Border Tales – but perhaps not in the way that Silvestrini would like. There’s something very reminiscent of the awkward, cringe-comedy of Ricky Gervais to the piece, with dancer Stuart Waters standing in for Gervais’s insensitive, foot-in-mouth irritant who finds his head repeatedly bashing against a wall of his own making. As with Gervais, the character is unsympathetic, the line between malice and incompetence blurred. And as with Gervais, the reactions of those surrounding the central character are simply implausible. In real life, people simply don’t deal with idiots in outraged silence – they either laugh, call them out or walk away.
This is most clearly seen in a scene with a drawn-out “welcome” party from hell, in which Walton strays from well-meaning condescension (choosing his guests’ drinks for them, pairing up the guests on the basis of religion) into ignorance (confusing Taiwan and Thailand, insisting that his male guests not shake Yuyu Rau’s hand because “they’re funny about touch over there”) and finally into outright intolerance (“You’re Muslim? Heavy.”) It’s not the kind of intolerance that leaves bootmarks on the face, but it’s the kind that “otherises” individuals and denies dancers Femi Oyewole and Kenny Wing Tao Ho, who both grew up in Britain, the opportunity to identify as British.
The problem with Border Tales as a work is that, having usefully presented this surface – a rich potential seam of pitfalls, anxieties, and very real sociocultural problems – the piece then refuses to do more than scratch. Rau fires off a litany of things British people assume about her as an East Asian woman – that she must be a delicate flower, a submissive, shrinking violet, or else a dragon-fighting kung-fu master. She underlines this last point with a beautiful sequence of wu-shu moves that rather subvert her text. Likewise Oyewole busies himself enacting every available cliché about black men – lecherous pelvic gyrations and crotch grabs segue into streetwise arm and torso ripples, and it’s unclear whether he’s sending up our expectations of black culture or his own.
I find myself agreeing with another writer who characterised the show as “DV8-lite”; Border Tales is too soft on its targets, too blunt with its generalisations, and doesn’t penetrate deep enough into the issues raised. By trying to keep its audience on side with too much distracting, deflecting humour, Border Tales isn’t angry enough to be a genuine polemic; but by failing to represent the shades between “migrant outsider” and “bigoted homelander” the show isn’t balanced enough to be a real debate. Silvestrini seems to have second-guessed something of that latter response in his script: dancer Stephen Moynihan demands to know if we in the audience feel that “nothing about Stu represents you?” Well, yes – when I’m a monolingual, beer-swilling football hooligan, Stu can get back to me. I should add, for clarity, that I don’t think the character of “Stu” represents the biographical Stuart Waters, either – and that this lack of subtlety, of allowing for possibilities in between two oversimplified extremes, is a failure of the work.
Special mention must go to musician Anthar Kharana for his electrifying live performance of Andy Pink’s score. The seven main dancers are all excellent, and there are some great bursts of movement material and confessional self-sharing in between the misguided bits. But there’s too much that is the wrong kind of awkward, that provokes the wrong responses – and, at almost two hours, the piece as it stands is sorely overlong.
Nothing would give me greater pleasure to end this review with the announcement that Protein’s latest work addresses a necessary issue in a bold and brilliant way. But sadly – despite some excellent performance – that’s not the case either.