Sunday 16 November 2014

Bordergame by National Theatre Wales


I’ve heard someone bemoan that National Theatre Wales has sucked all the funding for drama in Wales into itself, leading to the “sad” demise of many a small local theatre. Having attended two NTW productions by now (and wishing I had attended several others), I can’t help disagreeing: NTW does interesting, exciting things, the likes of which I have never before seen in theatres. If the price of that is the demise of all other funded theatre productions in Wales, then it is still a fair price to pay.
NTW’s ethos is that Wales itself is the stage. So if they do Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, the production takes place in an aircraft hangar, and the audience walks around following the actors and battles (and stepping out of the way of cars). Other plays have been staged in a fake German village built for military exercises, in the homes of Cardiff’s Somali community, and in Port Talbot.

Bordergame takes place in Bristol and Newport. It’s presented as an interactive play about immigration, but really, it’s hard to describe it as a play at all. There are two audiences – one, admission-paying, starts in Bristol Temple Meads. These are the wannabe immigrants. The other audience, admission-free, is sitting at home at a www-connected computer. These are the volunteers who help the border agency to watch the migrants and make decisions. If that sounds more like a social experiment than a stage play, then you’re not entirely wrong. The performance certainly takes inspiration from various influential psychology experiments of the past.

I’ve now partaken both ways – first as immigrant, then as border-watching volunteer. Both experiences were interesting, but in very very different ways. As participant trying to make your way from Bristol to Newport, you never really have a full overview. You get two emails before the event (one on the day itself), with instructions for picking up an envelope in a locker at the station. Once you’ve got the envelope, things quickly get quite stressful, as your interactions with the actors may well take you out of your comfort zone. (I suspect it’s a little less scary if you go in a group). The adventure itself is scripted only in part – it’s cheerfully non-linear, and different people get different opportunities and instructions. You literally never find out what everyone else got up to, and it’s all too easy to believe that some people might never have made it even as far as Newport. Those who get there are bound to meet the border agency, which is intimidating in quite different ways.

For the home-audience, the adventure starts with a little quiz, and then, at the appointed time, a chance to watch feeds from cameras watching the migrants. There is a chat room where volunteer border agents can discuss what they see, and there are instructions and a few choices along the way. There’s more of an overview (though not a complete overview: some people fall through the cracks), with a cheerfully governmental feel. It’s not at all stressful.

The tone of the experience is quite satirical, not Monty-Python-satirical but Four-Lions-satirical. For the people at home, it’s all satirical. For the people on the ground, the satire is delivered with a little more steel – but during the train journey, the tension dissipates and everyone’s quite relaxed by the time they get to their destination. This makes the adventure feel quite safe and playful. I can see why the production strikes this particular tone – without it, the paying audience might feel very uncomfortable indeed, especially if the train journey had been omitted – but it robs Bordergame of some of its bite. It ends up being an amusing night out. I am not sure it ends up making anyone think very much about anything.

Of course, it’s unlikely these playful shenanigans would ever appeal to the BNP / Britain First / UKIP / Nazi crowd, so perhaps ‘making people think’ was never really top of the agenda. The audience mostly comprised of students, GROLI types, lefties of various ages and a few theatre aficionados of indeterminate political leaning. In short, it was an evening of entertainment, rather than mind expansion.

If things were just left at that, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s a little bit exploitative (“Hey! Let’s play at immigrants and border guards for a laugh!”). In fact, while taking part I felt reminded of a rumour I heard last summer, that wealthy Mexicans can now have “adventure holiday experiences” where they play at trying to be border-crossing poor people, facing all the sort of obstacles illegal immigrants encounter. Fortunately, things get tied up at the end in a way that punctures any accusation of exploitative entertainment / poor taste. The final phase was, however, quite confusing.

I'd highly recommend taking part, if you can. It might not be seminal, but it is a strong hint at the future direction of theatre - and I certainly hope there will be many more projects like it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Other Reviews:

Experience Report (CONTAINS SPOILERS)

I’ve outlined in broad strokes what this performance is like. Now, SPOILER WARNING, here’s a complete experience report.

After booking the ticket, I received an email from “Miki” (presumably, a sibling) that told me travel had been arranged on my behalf, through an agency called Escape Migration (, and that $1000 in cash was on its way to me. There was a brief mention that “a bribe is a last resort”. On the website, I had to register and upload a photo for my ID card.

A second email arrived on the day, telling me to approach a woman dressed as a traffic surveyor, near a set of lockers, at Bristol Temple Meads railway station, to get details of my locker number and access code, and to be there for 8pm sharp. 

My train into Bristol was a bit late – if I had been supposed to catch a train at 8pm after picking up things from the locker, I would have missed it. So, naturally, I was a little nervous. (Having read on Twitter that someone had been executed on the Bordergame the night before had not helped my nerves at all!)

The envelope in the locker included a map, $1000 in toy money, and instructions to meet a man wearing a daffodil under a tree by a zebra crossing at a very specific time slot. I had a few minutes, so I hung around. Other people seemed to be hanging around too, but I wasn’t sure whether they were part of the game, or people waiting to be met by friends and acquaintances. At the appointed time, I approached him, using the special phrases (like in a spy movie). He was short, dark-skinned, with a strong accent and a serious, shifty demeanour. He made me wait out of sight, but no one else showed up, so, quizzing me about UK trivia all along the way, he took me to a dark corner to hand over my fake ID. (The ID card is magnificent by the way, I have it still & wonder whether I could get on a domestic flight or buy alcohol with it: it’s a lot more authentic than I thought it’d be! I’m surprised this sort of thing is legal.)

This is where we had a misunderstanding: I’d read the original email to mean that everything had already been paid for and the cash was to start a new life / use as bribe in Cymru, but, re-reading it now, it actually said a deposit had been paid and I’d have to pay the rest in cash. So when he asked for $500, I was taken aback and tried, in my meek way, to argue with him, which I should not have and which annoyed him. Anyway, I failed. He got the full $500 out of me, but I then did not buy the Welsh currency he was offering me at a “good rate” because I had incorrectly concluded that this character was a scam artist. 

Next, I was taken to the back of a van, where I got to sit on a blanket in the dark. Periodically, the door would open and other migrants would be rushed inside. It was a bit scary, as it suddenly seemed possible that we might be smuggled into Wales in the dark back of a van – maybe we had been selected for a different people smuggling operation. Eventually, a very intimidating (white) man turned up, shouted and growled at all of us, and gave us citizenship test books, vaccination documents, daffodil-bearing beanie hats and umbrellas, along with instructions and mobile phones (we had to switch our own off). And he took more of our money. One person protested that he’d already paid, and was left behind, locked up in the van, never to be seen again…

After passing through a very brief ‘customs’ check, where another person was held back, people made their way to the platform. I  noticed that my ID lacked a signature, and my vaccination document had no personal details in it, so I borrowed a pen and filled in the latter. The former was plastic, so the pen could not write on it.

There was a wait for the train – 15-20 minutes or so, and then a 25-minute train journey. This was the bit where the tension eroded. During that time, everyone got lots of text messages meant to trigger actions, amuse, or create tension, but mostly people treated these as diversion while chatting to each other. (It became clear that everyone had been offered different things to trade, but no real trade developed on board the train)

Then, at Severn Tunnel Junction, some of the hat-wearing people got off. I thought they might have made a mistake. Later, I’d realise they (probably) hadn’t: the game is so non-linear that there are, I think, at least three different paths to the end, and people have received different instructions.

In Newport, we were told to head to a specific exit. There, the “border agency” organised us into a queue and divided us into people who were let in, and people who failed and were suspected of being illegal. (Or claiming asylum)

I was among the illegals. I couldn’t sing the Welsh anthem & my passport had been flagged up by Interpol. So I was among those who were bussed to the border agency offices. There, people were again divided – some were interviewed extensively about their attempts to claim asylum. Some (including me) were taken to a sound lab to do a test to see if our accents matched our ID cards. And one was never seen again…

At the end of it all, we were taken away to “our people” and told “Thank you for taking part in Bordergame”. “Our people”, it turned out, were genuine asylum seekers and we met them in a basement somewhere. This is where some of us had no clue what to do, or what was expected of us. People stayed for a few minutes, some had conversations, but despite efforts to make us feel comfortable by serving dhal and squash and so on, the theatre goers weren’t on the whole to keen on hanging around. I did have a conversation with one young man, and sooner than I expected found myself among the last guests left. 


That is what happened. Here are some thoughts about different aspects of the experience:

The actors were excellent.

The movement and immersiveness was great.

The events in Bristol were great – all the way until we were left to catch our train.

The non-linearity with different paths and outcomes was an interesting choice – but as it seemed to be largely random / predetermined and felt disconnected from our own choices and actions, it felt artificial and unearned and a little frustrating.

The politics was bonkers, and not in a good way. The basic premise is that the UK has split and that Cymru is doing better than the NewK (it was never clear whether this meant England, or England and Scotland). Disease is rife in the NewK. So, Cymru wants to stop illegal immigration. But it was never clear whose shoes the audience was stepping into. I guess the idea was that we were migrants from elsewhere who were already in England, but unhappy there & deciding to upgrade and move to Wales, but this was never explicit. It was certainly odd for all of us (mostly British people) to be pretending we were British in order to get into Cymru,

Unfortunately, there was no internal logic at all. For example, we were continuously quizzed about silly UK trivia from the citizenship tests. However, British people don’t know that sort of stuff. Given that we were all pretending to be British, it was irrelevant: no one does a pop quiz of Brit-Trivia at the border: that sort of stuff is something you experience if you want to naturalise and become British, not as a test of your authenticity at a border. As for the Republic of Cymru / NewK split: it was shoddy. If British IDs were still valid until 2017 and English people can enter Cymru, then why were any of us going to people traffickers? Worst of all, there was not a huge deal of clarity about what exactly was supposed to have happened / be the reality on the ground, so I kept feeling like I did not understand who I was meant to be.

Here’s what should have been different:

We should have had a little more background & intro to the scenario.

Our choices should have had a direct impact on our paths through the narrative. Perhaps the coyote should have hustled for extra bribes, offering a different route at the end. Perhaps the trading should have been organised by actors on board the train – offering different items, and each of us choosing what, if anything, to buy to make our entry into Cymru easier. It should have been possible to run out of money entirely – and there should have been a consequence to that (e.g. an entry visa administration fee).

I think the experience might have been improved if there had been (more) scripted events, within sight / hearing of the audience, but without interaction, to build up a sense of threat and urgency. You know, like the things you encounter when playing PC games like Half Life - things that enhance the plot, but you can't affect. The migrants in the border agency detention facility could have been led past locked rooms with people demanding to be let out on the other side. Someone could have been arrested and dragged off in handcuffs. We could have been given newspapers on the train, with headlines telling us more about the world we were meant to be inhabiting & fleeing from, rather than citizenship test revision handbooks. And it would have been really useful to have some kind of a catalyst at the start of the journey - something to make the audience really want and need to get away to Cymru. 

The sorting of legal / illegal people in Newport should have been more systematic and less played for amusement. Yes, the border guards were a little scary, too, but it strikes me that every white actor had a role that was slightly tongue in cheek, while the dark-skinned actors who we met in Bristol had roles that were the most individual, and the most serious of them all. So somehow the dark-skinned actor (even though he was physically shorter) ended up being scarier than all the white skinned ones – simply because the tense interactions with him were individual, serious, and not made safe by tongue in cheek satire. I know the organisers of Bordergame would not have wanted it to have any racist undertones, but I think that, unintentionally, it did. 

The politics should have made sense. Here’s what it should have been: UK has had an EU referendum and independence referendums at the same time. Cymru has become independent and stayed in the EU. England has left the EU. The EU has punished England by not letting it in the EEA and imposing customs duties etc. English businesses have moved to Wales and Scotland to make use of the single market, leading to crisis in England. Banks have collapsed, the state has gone bankrupt, and healthcare is only available for those who can afford it. England First have started burning down mosques, synagogues, Quaker houses of worship and gay bars. 

In that scenario, to get into Cymru, the audience has to pretend they are European. They are issued with documents listing various different countries, and they have to pass muster as coming from Austria, Slovenia, Portugal, Poland, Croatia, Czech Republic etc. – by knowing a few very basic facts about whichever country their document says they are from, and perhaps having a suitable accent. Not all Brits know the birthday of the Queen, or how many people are in prisons in England and Wales (two things we were constantly quizzed about). But anyone should be expected to know the capital city, president, and political party in government of their home country. And those of the people seeking asylum could do so because they are Quakers, Muslims or queer. All of a sudden, there is some internal logic (when I was asked to sing the Welsh national anthem, I should really have said “of course I can’t, I’m English!”). All of a sudden, there is no special reward for speaking Welsh (one of the theatre goers was particularly attention-seeking and started interjecting comments, and later, conversing with the guards in Welsh to be able to get into Cymru: to my mind, that’s cheating)

Finally, our encounter with the genuine asylum seekers should have been a bit more structured. Left to our own devices, people just didn’t really know what to do, how much to interact, when to leave. I wasn't sure whether I was in a set or someone's home. I've seen another review claim it was a real safehouse, but I don't know whether that's true. There should have been someone to explain where we were, what was going on, and then yes, some chance to talk to people. But there really should have been some framework to understand why we were there and whether we were still role playing or not.

As for the interactive / home volunteer audience, there were some technical issues (feeds kept hanging), but the really important one is that the choices and instructions should have been sent to actors, rather than certain members of the migrant audience. The actors would then presumably have actually acted on them, and done so convincingly and professionally. And there should have been a bit more to guide our choice on who to suspect of terrorism than photos, names and ages. (This is where giving choices consequences could have come in – by giving the monitoring audience access to specific moments and choices the migrant audience members make, and perhaps some more data)

Basically, Bordergame should have been a bit braver, a lot more logical, a bit more realistic, and a bit more intelligent / less shallow. I still think it was a great idea and well-executed project – but with some tweaks, it could have been spectacular.

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