Belfast writer's own experience of being deported helped inspire play about the city's refugees

Following its premiere last autumn, Rosemary Jenkinson believes Lives in Translation will be even more hard hitting in its first full tour of theatres around Ireland

Writer Rosemary Jenkin (left) and performers Julie Maxwell and Raquel McKee

Three years ago, Rosemary Jenkinson was shocked to read about a refugee who felt so let down by government agencies that he set himself on fire outside Belfast City Hall to draw attention to his plight. 

This, part of what she believed to be the political story of the time, was a foundation for Lives In Translation, a play covering the plight of a female Somali asylum seeker named Asha and the obstacles she faces when seeking refuge in the west.

'I saw a series of short plays about the subject', says the Belfast playwright and author, 'and thought, 'I really want to write a big play about it'. I couldn't treat such a big topic in such a small way.'

Jenkinson found her 'perfect match' for the play in Paula McFetridge, Artistic Director of the Kabosh Theatre Company, the kind who 'jumps' at everything with a big, strong, political angle, according to Jenkinson.

'We had a conversation at the very start where Paula asked how we would make this not too grim', she says. 'So I did my best to show that the everyday life of an asylum seeker was not wholly downbeat. That they have to get on with their life. That they must have hope, because there is always hope.'

And Asha is the very definition of that word – her own name translates as 'hope'. Played by Raquel McKee, she flees conflict to find herself trapped within the suffocating bureaucracy of asylum seeking in Belfast. Described by Jenkinson as an 'amazing find' with a 'fantastic Somali accent', McKee is joined on stage by Tony Flynn and Julie Maxwell. Both play multiple parts including linguistics experts, supports workers and 'the scourge' of asylum seekers at the home office.

'Tony and Julie play totally contrasting characters, with all sorts of accents. People you would love and hate. I actually don't know how they keep up with it all!', laughs Jenkinson. 'But you don't notice them switching accents, and that’s testament to their brilliantly transformative qualities.'

Being adaptable is paramount in Lives In Translation, where transition and tonal maintenance is everything. At times, the play is even blackly comical, but then, Asha is being forced through a pretty farcical situation, deported from city to city – so what to do but look on the bright side?

Yet at the heart of the play rests something more serious – the responses to Jenkinson's various interviews with asylum seekers and support workers in Belfast, as she researched and wrote the piece.

Raquel McKee and Tony Flynn Lives in Translation

Raquel McKee and Tony Flynn in Lives in Translation

'The whole point was to take many experiences and make them into one person's story. I also thought about my own experience with bureaucracy and its stifling effects, which made me understand what it’s like to get an asylum seeker’s letters of rejection.'

Even that, however, didn't compare to Jenkinson's harrowing experience of a detention centre in Israel, where she found herself locked in a cell for one night after being blacklisted following a previous visit. 

'When the time finally comes for you to be deported, you're taken to the plane in an army jeep and walked onto it as if you're a criminal! So I know exactly how it feels for asylum seekers to be escorted and deported. But while I was going home, it was and is worse for them, because they have no status.'

A lack of status that could have proved traumatic and touchy in the interview process: what if Jenkinson's answers reflected information that could have hampered claims for asylum? 

'I had to disguise a lot of names and circumstances', she admits. 'Watching the play's World Premiere was incredibly, emotionally difficult for many. But one woman said to me, "While my claim might be affected, I don't care. It's the truth, and I want it out there."'

This is the sort of refreshing defiance and bravery which clearly inspires Jenkinson to be optimistic about Lives In Translation's impending arrival at the Lyric Theatre's main stage next month. There, the asylum seekers' stories will come to life through acting, story and much more: dance, video and plenty of Muslim washing rituals. Not so much a linear narrative, more a visual and melodic experience, with time shifts. 

'We want to show the passage of time, and how dependent we are on those little rituals that ground you while life passes you by,' Jenkinson explains. 'There is also plenty of movement. All that elevates it from the majority of monologue-based asylum seeking plays. I didn't want to do a monologue play. I think it's the most obvious, boring route.'

It was neither 'obvious' nor 'boring' to observers when the play premiered in an old B&Q Warehouse on Belfast's Boucher Road last year. For Kabosh are renowned for putting on shows in strange, unusual locations – and here was a very ghostly, lonely atmosphere which recalled, according to Jenkinson, a warehouse in a port.

Raquel McKee in Lives in Translation

Raquel McKee in Lives in Translation

But how will things differ in the Lyric?

'It'll be warmer, for a start! And I think it's brilliant to bring it to a more regular theatre-going audience. You’ll see Asha’s facial movements more clearly, so it may strike a stronger emotional chord. I also think the current political landscape, with Trump’s Muslim travel ban in place, will add to the power of the play. It’s important to see that Muslim asylum seekers are no danger to us – something the play certainly highlights.'

As part of its upcoming tour Lives in Translation comes to the Lyric Theatre Belfast (March 7), the Market Place Theatre Armagh (March 8), the Playhouse in Derry~Londonderry (March 10) and the Roe Valley Arts Centre, Limavady (March 13). For tickets click on any of the relevant venues.

Other dates include The Civic Theatre Tallaght (February 27 & 28), Droichead Arts Centre Drogheda (March 1), Axis Arts Centre Ballymun (March 2), O’Donoghue Centre NUI Galway (March 4) and An Táin Arts Centre, Dundalk (March 8).