Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Tim Cowbury: The Claim

By | Published on Thursday 11 January 2018

When I heard first about ‘The Claim’ – which goes up over at Shoreditch Town Hall imminently – I was immediately drawn to the idea of the show and the events surrounding it. Its focus is the story of a refugee, desperately trying to explain why he must stay in the UK, and I was keen to find out more about the creative team behind it, and their approach to the piece.

To that end, I arranged to have a chat with writer Tim Cowbury.

CM: So, starting at the beginning, what is ‘The Claim’ all about? What’s the story?
TC: Absurdly (and appropriately so) ‘The Claim’ is a story about a man called Serge not being permitted to tell his story. At the beginning, Serge ambles onto the stage and wonders ‘what kind of performance’ is expected. He’s then sucked into a dizzying whirlpool of words, subtle prejudices and judgemental gazes – an onslaught delivered by two nameless ‘hosts’. Spun around in a system he doesn’t understand, one that seems intent on talking over, misunderstanding and redefining him.

As this relentlessly Kafkaesque comedy of errors escalates, Serge continues trying to be heard amidst the maelstrom. Trying to do what will supposedly save his life: convincingly tell his story of how he came here, and why he must stay. But in this disorientating, rigged system, everything gets mangled. His story goes in one thing, and comes out something completely, and damningly, different. It’s a strikingly abstracted anatomy of a typical asylum claim that anyone who wants to stay here legally as a refugee must go through.

CM: What themes does the play explore?
TC: It’s about the ways we fail to see and hear people who come to the UK in dire need. On the one hand it’s an absurd comedy about cultural and verbal misunderstandings, full of word-play and whiplash-fast dialogue that pokes fun at conflicted British identities and values. But on the other it’s an intense, troubling and moving tragedy, about what it’s like to be a refugee on the receiving end of this conflicted Britishness.

CM: It’s got an obviously political issue at its heart. How important is it, do you think, for the arts to engage with politics? Can anything be achieved by it?
TC: What a huge and important question. YES! Absolutely loads can be achieved. That doesn’t mean every play should be trying to start a revolution, and it definitely doesn’t mean that a play that has that as its goal will achieve it. No one wants to be told what to do or think, and simple messages or tugs on heartstrings will only go so far (about as far as 1978, in terms of when they were last effective, if ever!). We live in strangely political times, and I think that calls for strangely political art: creations and experiences that match the deviousness of the powers that hold status quos in place.

In ‘The Claim’, that means a wealth of political, change-seeking activity around the edges of the play itself. But no mention whatsoever, within the play, of the literal, super-topical issues that absolutely must be tackled. You won’t hear the words ‘refugee’ or ‘Home Office’ or ‘immigration’ or ‘racism’ uttered during the show. Theatre isn’t journalism, nor strictly speaking is it activism. It has to offer something unique, an experience you simply couldn’t get anywhere but in this room with each other and the actors, right now. ‘The Claim’ presents its audience with an abstract human situation and makes them part of that situation: it’s they who are being asked what kind of performance they want. The play encourages them to laugh and relate to the British hosts, even as Serge’s nightmare coils itself around him. It tries to unsettle you as it entertains you: asks you to consider where you sit in relation to injustices you’ve just enjoyed seeing explored. The play, and its performers, look back at you looking at it.

I think this is how art can seed political achievements. The activity around the performance – the actions of and connections between people outside the auditorium – is what can grow that seed into concrete achievements. So, with ‘The Claim’, there’s a variety of installations, workshops, talks and legal surgeries happening around the production; the conversation continues. In terms of direct action, every audience member gets a leaflet on the way out with 10 different ways they can stay involved in the days, weeks, months and years ahead. Some people might just want to go and have a drink and stay out of it, and good luck to them. But I hope the piece snakes its way into their heads in a way that means they can’t simply move straight on!

CM: What made you want to tackle the story? What was the inspiration for the play?
TC: I’ve always been interested in how language and power intersect, and the ways that where you’re from can impact on how you think, feel and see people from elsewhere. Back in 2014, Mark Maughan (director of ‘The Claim’) asked me if I was interested in making a piece about migration. Around the same time, I was at a conference in France watching someone speak through an interpreter. They were just pitching a creative idea, and the idea must have sucked a bit because my brain did some serious wandering! I tuned out from the words and was struck by the interesting texture and dramatic potential of simultaneous translation: the immediacy, the pressure to be accurate, the scope for it to go wrong – and the equal measures of comedy and tragedy that might be wrought from that.

Soon afterwards I spoke to a friend who works with people caught up in the asylum system here. He opened the door to a world of absurd miscommunication that can occur in the UK asylum interviews, which usually feature (inadequately prepared, sometimes thoughtlessly assigned and always poorly paid) interpreters. The more I heard about these – all ‘claimants’ go through a shorter one (screening interview) followed eventually by a longer one (substantive interview) – the more I felt it was the only thing to write about.

CM: What sort of research did you do to inform this project?
TC: We started on the usual paths to get ourselves informed: reading, watching, meeting people who could go beyond the facts (or the post-truths!) and help us understand the complexities and the feeling of this issue from the inside. But happily this became much more than a research process – many of the people we met (including dozens of those who are/have previously applied for asylum) became part of the project and continue to be involved now. There are all kinds of ongoing activities – workshops, legal surgeries, an installation featuring the brilliant Write To Life group and more – happening everywhere the production goes this winter.

The play is therefore absolutely grounded in our interactions with people who’d gone through a set of experiences we could only begin to imagine. People we met through excellent organisations like Detention Action, Right to Remain, Refugee Council, GRAMnet, Counterpoints Arts and Freedom From Torture were incredibly generous in sharing eloquent, thoughtful, emotional viewpoints on the asylum decision system. We met hundreds of people and a number of them came into the rehearsal room during various workshop periods the play went through.

This meant we could do more than just test the truthfulness (or otherwise!) of what I was depicting in my writing. It also meant we could begin to address the fundamental disconnects explored in the play: between places, experiences and people. Mark and I were aware that as white British men we were the last people on earth who should speak on behalf of refugees. That’s why for me it’s very much a play about the UK, our prejudices and voices, as well as a play about those who seek refuge here. But whilst it would be completely wrong to speak on behalf of people who came here as refugees, it felt imperative to speak with them – and have the process and the play speak with them – in a sensitive, ongoing and meaningful way.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast?
TC: They’re amazing. ‘The Claim’ is one hell of a challenge for its performers: addressing its audience, intensely verbose, full of riffing repetitions and wordplay, lightning fast yet full of comically awkward pauses, and emotionally asking a lot as well. What I love about each of them – Ncuti Gatwa, Nick Blakeley and Yusra Warsama – is their ability to do all the usual (and not easy!) stuff, being compelling and believable in their interactions with each other, whilst keeping this electrifying, unnerving channel open to the audience. They’re able to play convincing characters and be absolutely their charming, idiosyncratic selves simultaneously, which for me is the mark of specially talented performers. As much as anything else, that ‘doubleness’ is the kind of high-wire act ‘The Claim’ relies on.

CM: As writer, have you been involved with the production, or have you stepped back a bit?
TC: Both actually. I was very involved with casting and in and out each week during rehearsals. There was some rewriting going throughout the first week of these but then my involvement became increasingly that of observer, occasionally piping up with a suggestion or opinion. Just as Mark was very much involved in initiation of the project and the development of the script, I’d say I’ve been fairly involved in the process of staging it. We definitely try and do each other’s jobs now and then, but just as the script is totally written by me, I have to say this production is totally (and excellently) directed by him!

CM: What’s next for the production, after the Shoreditch run?
TC: We’ve got a couple more tour dates lined up at the end of January, at the (brilliantly named – what does it mean? Google will probably tell you) Gulbenkian (Canterbury), at Platform (Glasgow) and then Northumbria University. But we do really feel we’ve got something exciting and unique on our hands, and maybe something important – so we’re going to explore ways to give the production a life beyond January.

CM: What plans do you have for the future?
TC: I want to keep picking away at this intersection of theatre and politics: I’ve thought a lot about it, and I reckon there really is something unique that theatre offers as a means of provocation, and of orientating yourself within a bigger group. Whether that’s amongst the rest of the people in the room or the neighbourhood, city, country or (goddammit, let’s not be shy) world that you’re in. I want to do what ‘The Claim’ is doing but for more people, and not necessarily constrained by the thing that plagues theatre and has for years – that only certain kind of people tend to walk through the foyer doors. On the flip-side of that coin, I love writing dialogue and characters and I think TV does straight-up fiction better than theatre ever can – so I’m keen to have a go at that before too long.

CM: What’s coming up for you in the short-term?
TC: I collaborate with Jessica Latowicki under the name Made In China and we have a couple of shows in the pipeline. For starters I’m backseat-driving (ok, dramaturging) our next show ‘Super Duper Close Up’, which uses live film to explore culturally-conditioned anxiety and has just started development. Then there’s our sitcom-meets-reality TV show idea, ‘Sex Yacht’. Probably best to keep that one under wraps for now. I’ve also been working a little bit with a Swiss singer/super-innovative costume designer/live artist, Livia Rita, and I’m hoping we’ll collaborate more. And I’m starting work on a piece with composer Tom Parkinson which takes the structure and principles of the String Quartet, transposing them onto four speaking voices to tell a collaged, kaleidoscopic story about contemporary Britain.

‘The Claim’ is on at Shoreditch Town Hall from 16-26 Jan. See the venue website here for more information and to book.

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Photo: Richard Davenport