How Not To Drown
Traverse Theatre, v15
Times: various (ends 25 August, not Mondays)
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4 stars)
Dritan Kastrati is only eleven. He has grown up in Albania, but now his father is sending him via an underground network to England, where he says Dritan will be safe, with his brother Alfred, who arrived there a few years earlier. When he was six, Alfred and his gang of friends threw him in the river to teach him how to swim – all he could do was go forward, not down.
The real Dritan is now on stage, playing himself as an adult watching while he and four other actors play a multiplicity of parts as they act out his story in a play which Nicola McCartney crafted from some 600 hours of recorded interviews with Dritan.
The stage is a simple steeply-raked diamond of wood which is on a revolve and we are taken on a nightmare fairground ride as we watch Dritan struggle to make sense of everything that happens to him, always with the question to his father – Why did you send me away? I was so young, so weak…
The first part of the play seems more like a history and geography lesson, outlining the political, geographical and cultural situation in Albanian which led his father to make his decision. The narrative of Dritan’s horrendous journey to England is graphically portrayed – as is the Albanian belief in besa: if you can help someone, why not? which leads total strangers to perform acts of staggering generosity. “Family is everything” is also very clear, which is why young Dritan can’t understand why he isn’t allowed to stay with Alfred when finally he reaches him, but is taken away and placed in care – ‘for the child’s safety is paramount’…
The rest of the narrative is a scathing condemnation of the British government’s immigration policy and procedures, the stupidity of the “care” system which removes an eleven-year-old boy [who has already faced situations and terrors that would break most adults, let alone a child], from the only family he knows and instead sends him to live with a succession of so-called carers, who may do their best to offer their ‘guests’ food and shelter but at best are prevented by the system from offering any sort of loving care, and at worst see them simply as a means of earning money..
At no point does anyone make any effort to find out what Dritan thinks, how he feels or actually to listen to him.
The cast is extremely versatile and the whole production is very fluid, with each of the actors taking a turn playing Dritan, his family, and the people he meets. It’s an extremely physical production, very fast-moving, and graphic in its portrayal of the perils of the journey from Albania.
Dritan himself is single-minded in his determination to survive no matter what is thrown at him, and to stand up for himself no matter how he’s treated; I’m glad to know that he survived and has managed to make something positive of his life, despite everything that conspired to turn him into an angry, disaffected stranger in a community to which he doesn’t feel he belongs. The saddest thing is that above everything he wants to feel at home but he can’t, no matter where he is – he’s lost much of his Albanian heritage, his parents don’t seem like his parents and he doesn’t know how to be their son, and he’s spent so many years bottling up his emotions, not
allowing them to surface, that he no longer knows who or what he is or where he belongs.
It’s not a fun piece, though there are flashes of humour – and some laughs, generally at political comments: the title says it all – is not drowning worth the price you have to pay for keeping on keeping on keeping your head above water?