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Borderline – the UK’s first comedy about the Calais 'Jungle'

By Hari Reed, University of East Anglia

In this post we find out about the Being Human event which humanises the experiences of those who lived in the Calais ‘Jungle’. This comedy performance, and the research behind it, shows a side to the ‘Jungle’ often left out of mainstream media portrayals of the camp.

A refugee is a person who loses and finds. The stereotypical refugee loses their place in the world, then finds another. Loses their identity, then regains it, or finds another. Loses and finds family, community and – perhaps most importantly – home.

Refugee History is organising four events in Norwich for the Being Human festival that address the refugee’s experience of losing and finding home. These events hope to show the general public how valuable humanities research is to all parts of society and culture, but particularly where asylum seeking is concerned. The refugee has historically ‘found a home’ in the humanities, which tends to keep its doors open when others close theirs. We believe it is essential both to honour this tradition and to help ensure that it continues today.

Refugee History is excited to present Psychedelight’s brave new play Borderline as one of their Being Human events. Borderline is a satire of the Calais Jungle devised by an ensemble of refugee and European performers, and directed by Sophie NL Besse. The play features seven refugees from Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria, who experienced Calais first-hand, and six British, French and Chilean experts in physical comedy. It enjoyed great success in its first year, with repeated sold-out performances in London, appearances in Brighton, Leeds and Germany, and a residency with Counterpoint Arts.

The cast developed Borderline as a comedy because, as the director Besse explained to me, the actors ‘want to connect with the audience, to show that they are also funny nice people and not only refugees who went through a traumatic experience. That they are not a burden or miserable people.’ As a comedy, Borderline is able to highlight absurd elements of European border control and show a side of the ‘Jungle’ camp omitted from mainstream media representations: the camaraderie, resilience and ingenuity of its inhabitants. Besse’s aim is ‘to work on integration and prove that we can do a lot of things together despite language barriers and cultural differences.’ Her work exists to ‘fight clichés: I wanted to build a bridge between refugees and the audience thanks to humour.’ Thus Borderline provides a forum in which to discuss the kind of ‘home’ a refugee might find in the humanities. Borderline’s Norwich performance will be shown to school students – a demographic that Besse is particularly keen to reach.

It will be followed by a Q&A session with the cast and a workshop run by Protection Approaches. This workshop will focus on individual stories of identity-based violence, using role play and interactive activities to teach the students how to identify processes that lead to prejudice and hatred. Both performance and workshop demonstrate ways that the humanities can host literal and figurative refugees. They allow us to imagine a language that would span activism and academia, and forge links between them. Borderline also amplifies the voices of typically marginalised refugees, providing a platform for individuals to communicate their own views about their own situations, via their chosen channels.

Borderline also poses a challenge to the refugee ‘victim narrative’. The play shows solidarity with refugees while criticising in unique ways the disempowering idea that all refugees are helpless victims. As the first comedy about Calais to emerge in the UK, Borderline experiments with a new lens for viewing the ‘refugee crisis’ as a whole, and hints at ways that the humanities might become more hospitable towards refugees, by providing a blueprint for artistic and intellectual collaboration between refugees and non-refugees.

We hope that Borderline will, in conjunction with the other Refugee History events in Norwich, emphasise both the general importance of humanities research, and the specific need to open neutral and cross-societal spaces of dialogue about refugee and migration issues.