Review: A Restless Place

Pilot Theatre takes over York’s Castle Museum with Juliana Mensah’s inspiring and thought-provoking play, A Restless Place.

Following on from the Pilot Theatre company’s success in their widely acclaimed installation of In Fog and Falling Snow, this is a verbatim, promenade performance directed by Katie Posner, exploring themes of immigration and belonging. The play is set in the York Castle Museum, and is structured around the testimonies of people who arrived as immigrants in York, conflated with a fictional narrative.

The most striking thing about this performance is the overall strength and clarity of the concept. The subject matter of immigration is a highly canvassed, delicate and emotive topic which is exceedingly pertinent today, but this innovative piece introduces a folktale aesthetic to the content. The play is never dated, aside from references to World War Two, and the narrative exhibits a fluid temporality throughout. The audience is taken on an immersive journey, placed side by side with the characters as they tell their stories. Though nothing is asked directly of the spectators, such spacial proximity enables the viewer to share in the characters’ tumultuous emotions of joy, confusion, frustration, excitement and fear.

A wonderful blend of conviviality and intimacy

The beautiful dungeon setting, with its corridors, torch-lit rooms and windowless cells, is utilised to the optimum of its capacity with a palpable implication of directorial skill, creativity and finesse. A problem often encountered by the use of promenade theatre is that the bustle of leading people around the various locations can detract from the performance, leading to an unfortunately restricted view for many audience members. However, the esteemable planning and management of this production meant that this risk never became a hindrance, and, instead, created a wonderful blend of conviviality and intimacy. Every single space was used to create a specific ambience; Whether meeting place, bedroom or prison, each moment was convincingly constructed through the use of adroit lighting and acting.

Throughout the production, nothing is explained to the audience, and yet everything is revealingly displayed. A security guard enters and locks up half of the crowd while the Syrian and Argentinian characters speak of war and disappeared relatives. The guard refuses to explain his actions, simply stating “You have 20 minutes left”. The targeted audience members are left to feel confused, manipulated and discriminated against as they watch the other viewers receive complimentary refreshments in the “Expat lounge”. It is incredibly refreshing to see a play wherein the company does not rely solely on scripted dialogue to express themselves. The onlooker is allowed to feel without being explicitly told what to feel; They are simply placed in situations intended to raise provoking questions. However, this is not to say that the words that remain are not striking in their own right. Juliana Mensah’s accomplished script exhibits deftness in a notoriously difficult genre. Verbatim dialogue can often be difficult to follow; It stumbles, repeats, and interrupts itself. In A Restless Place, this is not a problem. The sense of each character shines through every line without any reliance on romanticisation or the pulling of heart-strings. The fictitious passages are wonderfully in keeping with the testimonies, and filled with poetry, sincerity and emotion.

The audience looks on in an almost dreamlike state at the glimpses of life captured in one single moment, only to see it whirl away and morph drastically into the next

The performance space has an inhabited, invested feel, despite a true economy of props and set. Every action, prop and character is carefully considered and meaningful. The audience looks on in an almost dreamlike state at the glimpses of life captured in one single moment, only to see it whirl away and morph drastically into the next. Despite the disjunctive collage of snapshots, a feeling of sympathy and understanding is created which connects them all. It is presented as an inherent belief that when you leave your country, whoever you were before, you now have to be content “to be something less”.

As the narrative progresses, a silent man with a briefcase enters and projects pictures on the wall. He illuminates the way with a torch, and leads us further into the story.

The diversity within the range of characters is excellent, and the way in which they are compared and contrasted is extremely effective. Towards the end of the play, one of the characters remarks how differently she was treated when immigrating to the United Kingdom from America, and from Eastern Europe. In one case, people did not understand why she should want to come, and in the other, they simply took it for granted that she should. “And yet”, she says, “I was the same person”. In another moment, an Argentinian character asks a Syrian man why his family do not come and join him, and he replies that his father has built a life in his own country; he has a house, and to him, that is home. The Argentinian man hangs his head in understanding. There are no words. The final note of the play is one of unity tinged by sadness. The poignancy of the question ‘Where is home?’ hangs in the air; Everyone is implicated.

A Restless Place is a fantastic blend of disparate characters, tangled experiences and shared understanding. It evokes a strong and emotive reaction from everyone present and demands a response. The audience departs feeling peaceful and inspired, yet weighed down by an irrepressible sense of responsibility.