Tom Bolton in north London
27th October 2022
Performed on a bare stage that contains only a trunk and a suitcase as a set, it is immediately clear that Sami Ibrahim’s play is about movement, boundaries, displacement, and home. The central character, Elif (Sara Hazemi), seems to lead an existence from a fairy tale as a shepherdess, looking after her flock on a nameless island in an unknown time, shearing their fleeces which float up to make the clouds and bring the rain. If this sounds twee, it is not what it seems. Reality barges into Elif’s story, and we discover that she is an illegal immigrant at the mercy of her employer (played by Princess Khumalo), and the life of a shepherdess is poorly paid and brutal. She has come to the island having been forced to leave her mother and her home by war. And then she is made pregnant by her employer’s son (Samuel Tracy) leading her into a struggle for official recognition for her and her daughter, Lily.
Samuel Tracy as the landowner’s son. Photo credit: Craig Fuller.
Ibrahim writes in a layered and intriguing style, in which the characters are also narrators, constantly stepping back from the story to question their own and others’ accounts of what happened, and to challenge their motives. It gives the play a constantly shifting surface in which no one can settle, reflecting its core theme. Comforting parables come up hard against a Kafkaesque immigration system designed to destroy people systematically over many years. The system is that of the UK. As Lily grows up (with Princess Khumalo in this role too) she rebels as teenagers do and questions her mother’s decisions, leading to conflict. The progress of the story reveals systemic inhumanity in the way we have set up our society and how, “under the same sky” as Ibrahim puts it, people have no rights, status, or respect.
The way we treat refugees is an urgent political question, and the play’s focus is powerful. However, its combination of politics and quirky fairy tale is not a complete success. Elif defends her daughter and herself from reality through stories. They put her in control, making the weather, releasing pigeons to shit on the heads of the people who torment her and, eventually, making a whole new social order in her head. This illustrates both the power of stories to change reality and their limits, including the way people without power can retreat into fantasy, but the whimsy starts to grate. Elif’s minimum-wage job hoovering up the rain or her cultivation of her daughter in a plant pot seem more related by the play’s aesthetic than to its impact and meaning. The constantly refocusing narrative also makes it hard for the audience to feel fully committed to the story or its characters.
The production, by Yasmin Hafesji, has been developed with the Rose Theatre, Kingston and Paines Plough, who toured it during the summer in their Roundabout mobile auditorium. She works well to create movement and dynamism to bring events to life that are occurring in the characters’ memories. Events are acted out with toy sheep and wooden castles on top of a travelling trunk, a simple but effective device. Ryan Dawson Laight’s design makes the most of limited resources, creating clever images with tethered balloons, splattered handfuls of soggy cloth, and a trunk full of soil. The performers are fully committed to a demanding script, constantly switching roles. Sara Hazemi in particular is an engaging and convincing performer, and the focal point for everything that happens on stage.
Elif’s climactic speech in which she imagines an impossible future in which she fences a field, declares independence, and conquers the UK by marching on London from the south-west is fuelled by a level of desperation that hits home. However, her social vision is fundamentally compromised. She cannot see a way to run a country that does not include making war on neighbours and sacrificing the lives of her citizens. This leaves us in a dark place, with little to suggest a better way forward. Perhaps this is a realistic view of the way inhumanity infects by constraining possibility, a sobering and uncompromising message. A Sudden Burst of Violent Rain, while not a triumph, is certainly a provocative and imaginative piece of theatre.
The show’s opening in Camden is particularly significant as it marks the first production at Theatro Technis’s base by the famed Gate Theatre, which has moved from its tiny, atmospheric, and wildly inaccessible home above the Prince Albert pub in Notting Hill. The Gate will now share the space at 26 Crowndale Road with Theatro Technis. The venue is certainly a more practical place to make theatre, and every discerning audience member will want to wish the Gate, one of London’s most important fringe theatres, and its interim Artistic Director Stef O’Driscoll, all the best in its new home.