“Sanctuary.”

Direction and design: Brett Bailey
Dramaturg and author: Eyad Houssami
Sound design: Manolis Manousakis
Lighting design: Colin Legras
Videos: Catherine Henegan
Featuring: Magd Asaad, Robert Ian Ouko Kibet Babu, Sandrella Dakdouk, Françoise Hémy, Françoise Hémy, Muna Mussie, Nidal Sultan, Lionel Tomm
Technical Director and production manager: Miguel Munoz
Sound and video engineer: Carlo Thompson
Company and stage management: Helena Erasmus
Construction: Foivos Kouvdos
Illustration and graphic design: Roger Williams
Set: Ray Studios
Props: Velissarios Sirmakentzis
Soundscape “Neroli”: Brian Eno
Programming: Alexandros Drymonitis
Piano: Constantinos Evangelidis
Production and general manager: Barbara Mathers
Production manager: Jan Ryan
Management: UK Arts International / Third World Bunfight
10 June 2017, 20:00
Oberhafenquartier
Theater der Welt, Hamburg, Germany

Brett Bailey’s “Sanctuary” is quite an interesting experience. The audience is taken in small groups through a labyrinth of wire fencing depicting the experience of refugees. As an audience member, you are treated as a refugee. Talking is prohibited and you are subjected to the constant waiting for (fictional) bureaucratic processes to be finalized before a green light permits you to progress through the labyrinth. There are times of seemingly senseless waiting.

The first room that the audience enters is a waiting room. Promotional photos of Europe are projected onto a screen. These photos later stand in stark contrast to the lived reality of the characters in the rest of the installation. The audience proceed to view tableaux of various people affected by the current refugee crisis. Each of their stories is written on a placard in front of them. They include a man who risked everything to give his baby a better life, now stranded among debris in a harbour. There is a musician in a hostel room among broken instruments and debris, writing to his mother about the beautiful apartment that he stays in and the symphony orchestra that he is a member of. Next the audience sees a woman in a wheelchair whose arms have been amputated. She sits in front of a shop window advertising Black Friday promotions while the audience can read how she was sold into slavery and raped on a daily basis. The audience also sees a Somalian woman who works as a sex slave and a disillusioned photographer/translator who has heard the line, “after seeing this footage, the world will know,” too many times.

At some point, men and women are separated. There is another waiting period. Then the audience enters the apartment of a 74 year old woman. She is lonely. She knits, apparently without purpose, as her knitting reaches the floor and does not seem to resemble a shape. There is a display case with Hungarian dolls and two fish in a bowl. Next in line is a municipal worker in Berlin. Although he says that he was sympathetic towards the refugees’ situation initially, he now fears that they are posing a threat. The last tableau shows a man on a coast in France. He is disillusioned about the boundaries that Europe is now protecting so fiercely after invading Africa for centuries.

The installation is surely interesting. It shows the audience something of the human experience behind the statistics and news flashes regarding the refugee crisis. Since I am very curious when viewing any type of performance, I looked intently at each performer, not looking away when they each made slow and steady eye contact. Yet, this was only possible within the fictional context of the installation. Whereas one tends to avert one’s eyes when confronted directly with poverty or misfortune – not only because it would be inappropriate to gawk – but also because eye contact in such a situation is too intense, too raw, the fictional context of the performance makes the audience member’s interaction with the tableaux socially “safe.” Nevertheless, it remains disconcerting because of the knowledge that the events in the installation are based on fact.

However, I walked away from the installation feeling a sense of disappointment. Although poignant, the piece felt a little predictable. It did not challenge the audience in any way or find innovative ways of dealing with the content. Of course, it is important that the broader public are made aware of the events that this installation is based on. The installation addresses an international crisis that needs intervention. Yet, I did not feel that “Sanctuary” shifted any artistic or conceptual boundaries.

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