The Bridge Theatre in London has been running a number of monologue shows (including Talking Heads) since a tentative reopening some weeks ago. Starting on Thursday they are adding Nine Lives, a play by Zodwa Nyoni, to the roster. However, if you are unwilling or unable to get to the theatre you can still catch up with the play in a performance captured at the Arcola Theatre in 2016. The piece actually goes further back than that being first performed in Glasgow in 2014. I mention this simply because the play seems to still be completely relevant in its focus on the issue of asylum seekers and their experience of coming to Britain.
Ishmael has left Zimbabwe in a hurry, fleeing persecution engendered by the fact that he is gay. He finds himself quartered in Leeds, a far cry from Harare, where he is regarded with suspicion, sometimes fear and often hatred. Despite this he tries to eke out his existence on the meagre £36 per week he is allowed. His landlady won’t even shake his hand, a teenager steals his food parcel, his room companion is forcibly removed by the authorities – these are his experiences. Having been betrayed/abandoned to his fate by his ex-partner, above all it is clear that Ishmael craves human contact. This he starts to find in a chance encounter in the park with Bex, a teenage single mum and her child Bailey. However, Ishmael’s insecurities lead him to adopt the persona of Sam and this deception puts a strain on the relationship.
Lladel Bryant plays Ishmael and indeed all the other characters that inhabit his world and proves himself to be a versatile and adept performer; he certainly nails the Leeds accent for one thing. With a simple change of stance Bryant morphs from one character to another with assurance and we are quickly able to buy in to any personality he adopts. In the middle section the character of Bex almost takes over as she embarks on the tale of how she came to find herself a single parent. In essence, Nyoni has structured this part as a monologue within a monologue, an interesting device which allows the similarities between these two main characters to shine through.
The setting could not be simpler. There is a brick wall as a backdrop – the wall of the actual venue but, at the same time, a serendipitous metaphor for the bureaucracy which Ishmael and fellow asylum seekers will face. Illumination initially comes from a single bare bulb leaving many dark corners in the performance area – again this is suitably metaphorical. Bryant/Ishmael carries his life around with him in the form of a single suitcase from which various props are produced and which doubles as the edge of a bed or a park bench. The power of the piece comes almost totally from the words which are uttered although the sound design by Ed Clarke helps to provide some context.
The piece, directed smoothly by Alex Chisholm, comes in at a nifty fifty minutes and perhaps rather overcrams ideas into too short a space of time. It is remarkable, for instance, how quickly Ishmael is able to assimilate and comment upon the quirks and foibles of British life although I did appreciate the nice little nods to that son of Leeds (and maestro of monologues) Alan Bennett. That aside, the play is an engaging and thought provoking plea for compassion and understanding and in these current times of uncertainty and isolation is a good addition to both the live stage and the online theatre experience.
Nine Lives is available on You Tube; click here
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