NOT JUST A READINESS EXERCISE
In 2015 alone, when the writing of this play commenced, over 800,000 refugees arrived in the Greek islands, according to research published by the Office of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees). In the case of an urgent departure from a country in crisis, a person usually has a very limited amount of time at her/his disposal to prepare. When suddenly you have to leave your country altogether – and maybe even forever – what is it you take with you? A photograph, a jacket, a whistle?
Just before this play was commissioned by the Royal Court Theatre, I had gone to visit Lesvos, an island very close to Turkey’s coastline, through which most immigrants, mainly Syrians, pass on their way to Europe and the West. I went to several places linked with immigrants, as well as to the Reception and Identification Center (RIC) in my effort to comprehend this newly developed situation. In a landfill I found suitcases, open and tossed, that once belonged to immigrants who had been robbed, and all around lay children’s clothes, ancestors’ photographs, and various personal items, which, even though valued by the immigrants, were nonetheless considered nothing but junk by the robbers.
What is the value, and what is the import of things? What is the value and the import of things in different cultures? What do the same things mean to different people? What rationale leads people to take specific things along with them, while leaving all the rest behind?
In the course of writing the play, I decided to stage an experiential performance using another “category” of people. I asked twelve Greeks – ten adults and two children, one of whom was my 10- year-old daughter – to bring onto the stage and to justify the things they would take with them, should they have to leave the country abruptly, for a long time or even forever. The performance took place in January 2016 in Athens (Beep Theatre), under the title “Readiness Exercise.” I promised the participants that, in the play itself, I would include at least one of the objects that they had presented. Keys, deeds to houses, books, cooking recipes, board games . . . I also found myself in the same frame of mind, and started going around my house, looking at the thousands of piled things in our household with a different eye, trying to think of what I would take with me.
Inspired by my small sample of what would be chosen by citizens of the western world, as well as by what had been brought along by Syrians and other refugees coming to the West, I continued working through the next months on “The Things You Take with You.” This is the second polyphonic play that I have written, following “I Want a Country.” Both of these plays retain, for me at least, the sense of ancient tragedy, though only in those moments when the emblematic protagonists are absent and are instead replaced by the chorus – the crowd.
The play you have in your hands was translated by a playwright I love, Alexi Kaye Campbell, and a near half-hour of it was presented at the Royal Court Theatre in June 2016, as part of the LIFT/On the Move festival. It was directed by Richard Twyman, and its only set was a suitcase in the middle of the stage, in front of an electrified audience seated only a breath away from the actors. I think this performance led the Royal Court Theatre to commission the translation of the rest of the play as well, which was presented in April 2017 for the first time in its entirety, in an impromptu performance in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, under the guidance of director Tim Supple, in conjunction with Dash Squat – A European Counter-Cultural Festival.
Personally, several times, I have considered leaving my country, which is currently in a deep financial and social crisis. Each year, I seem to have more and more reasons to do so. I am definitely not the only one. Besides, in how many other geographical areas on the planet do others not find themselves in a similar or worse situation? I do not know whether I will ever be forced, directly or indirectly, to actually leave, and leave everything behind me. I hope not. But one thing is certain: I now know which things I will be taking along with me and, for the most part, why that is – for what it matters.