Skip to main content

Anders Lustgarten - Lampedusa

When Anders Lustgarten wrote the first draft of his play, Lampedusa, in late 2014, it seemed no-one was really talking about what was a then largely un-noticed international migrant crisis. The week before the play opened in London a few months later, Lustgarten notes, over 400 migrants were killed when a boat capsized off the coast of Libya. A few days later, over 700 people were drowned trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, which the play is named after, and which has become a primary European entry point for mainly African migrants.

“The journey of the play is an interesting one,” says Lustgarten, as a new production of Lampedusa prepares to open in the intimate confines of the Citizens Theatre's Circle Studio in association with the young Wonder Fools company, overseen by director Jack Nurse. “I'd been doing a lot of work on development banks, and one of the things they do is displace people, and through organisations like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) there is a dislocation that happens in poor countries because of capitalism, and that creates a huge rupture in society.

“I could see the migrant wave coming when I was looking at all this, but no one was talking about it. It went from when we first did the play where people would be asking if I was sure about that, to it accidentally coinciding with the migrant crisis bursting into the open. It went from being a play about trying to let people know what was going on in the world, to coinciding with a moment when everyone knew about it.”

For the next few months, Lustgarten inadvertently became what he calls “the go-to man” for TV news companies needing commentary on the migrant crisis and its ensuing tragedies. It was, he says, “a very strange position for a playwright to be in.”

Lampedusa takes the form of twin monologues split between two people on the frontline of what might initially look like very different situations. Stefano is a former fisherman who now earns a living retrieving the bodies of dead migrants from the sea. Denise is a mixed race Chinese-British student who finances her degree course in Leeds by acting as a debt collector for a payday loan company.

“The reason there are two monologues is that migration and austerity are the same thing,” says Lustgarten. “These two things – migration and poverty – are kept separate, and the victims of both are kept apart, and what happens is that poor people are pitted against immigrants in a way that is caused directly and deliberately by the political system.

“It's been interesting in terms of the social reaches of the audiences the play is seen by. In London, when we did it at Soho Theatre, the audience really enjoyed the romantic notion of the fisherman, but they didn't want to know about the north of England. When we did it at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, they really enjoyed the stuff about the north, and this student having to do what she does. I'm really looking forward to seeing it in Scotland, where there's more of a sense of community that exists in a way that people in the south of England don't have, or have educated their way out of.”

Lustgarten was an athlete and an activist before he turned to playwriting, and he speaks with the focussed commitment of both. In this respect, he is on a par with someone like Mark Thomas, who similarly combines a sense of righteous indignation regarding the dishonesty of current political systems and its very intended consequences with a sense of partisan artistry.

“Camus has a quote,” says Lustgarten, referencing French existentialist novelist and former goal-keeper of the Algerian national football team, Albert Camus. “He said everything he knew came from him being a goal-keeper, and I suppose I have a similar thing. It's very hard to fool yourself as an athlete. You can either run a race in forty-five seconds, or you can't. You have to be honest and tough on yourself with that. You get what you put into it, and if you work hard you will get further. In the same way, I try not to cheat myself as a writer, and try to be honest with myself.”

It's a philosophy that has paid off, ever since Lustgarten turned to playwriting following a stint devising academic courses for prisoners in the UK and USA, where he also taught drama in prisons.

His early play, The Punishment Stories, was shortlisted for the 2007 Verity Bargate Award. In 2011, Lustgarten won the inaugural Harold Pinter Playwrights Award, and received a commission from the Royal Court. The London based theatre premiered A Day at the Racists the same year, and If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep in 2013.

Other giveaway titles of Lustgarten's canon include Socialism is Great, and The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie. He also adapted David Peace's novel, The Damned United, which charts maverick football manager Brian Clough's short-lived reign at Leeds United, for West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Lustgarten's most recent work is The Seven Acts of Mercy, which co-opts its title from Caravaggio's painting, The Seven Works of Mercy, and, flipping between 1606 Naples and 2016 Bootle, Merseyside, looks at gentrification and the ongoing UK housing crisis. The play is produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, while he is also under commission to the Royal National Theatre, for whom he is writing “a big play, about the rise and demise of Blairism.”

On one level, Lustgarten's explicitly oppositional work seems to chime with a reawakening of politically driven theatre in a way that probably hasn't existed since the 1970s and early 1980s, and which mirrors the state of assorted nations ideologies his plays critique. On another, he keeps his distance from signing up for a new wave of liberal rabble rousing.

“There are a few things around politically in the theatre,” he says, “but I don't regard a lot of it as being fantastically honest. The interesting stuff is coming up from twenty-somethings, who have a sense that the system is broken, and aren't afraid to be direct about that. Some of the bigger things are just reinforcing liberal smugness.”

Given Lustgarten's criticism of the theatrical establishment, having his plays produced by the RSC and the RNT might be regarded as a form of artistic entryism. He sees it as a shift in focus coming from the establishment itself.

“I think there's a real hunger in the bigger theatrical institutions for more radical work than they've been putting on,” he says. “The best example of that is Erica Whyman, who directed The Seven Acts of Mercy,” Lustgarten says, referring to the deputy director of the RSC. “Erica is a really good example of someone who is really trying to change the conversation.”

As part of that conversation, Lustgarten has updated Lampedusa slightly.

“I don't think the play is going to get any less relevant,” he says. “It doesn't matter how many boats are sunk, the situation won't stop. It's the same reason people go to money lenders. If you have nowhere left to go, you're going to take that risk.

“The thing about looking at this in a play is that when politicians talk about it, they take all the heart out. We're trying to put the humanity back into it. What I think people are hungry for is human connection. A play has a warmth there that's all about humanity.”

Lampedusa, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, November 8-18.
www.citz.co.uk

The Herald, November 2nd 2017

ends

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Peter Brook – The Prisoner

Peter Brook is no stranger to Scotland, ever since the guru of European and world theatre first brought his nine-hour epic, The Mahabharata, to Glasgow in 1988. That was at the city’s old transport museum, which by 1990 had become Tramway, the still-functioning permanent venue that opened up Glasgow and Scotland as a major channel for international theatre in a way that had previously only been on offer at Edinburgh International Festival.
Brook and his Paris-based Theatre des Bouffes du Nord company’s relationship with Tramway saw him bring his productions of La Tragedie de Carmen, La Tempete, Pellease et Mellisande, The Man Who…, and Oh Les Beaux Jours – the French version of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days – to Glasgow.
Thirty years on from The Mahabharata, Brook comes to EIF with another piece of pan-global theatre as part of a residency by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, which Brook has led since he decamped to Paris from London in the early 1970s. The current Edinburgh residency has alr…

Romeo And Juliet - Shakespeare's Globe Comes to Glasgow

Open-air Shakepeares are a summer-time perennial of the theatre calendar, attracting picnicking audiences as much as midges. More often than not, such romps through the grass are frothy, heritage industry affairs designed to be accompanied by strawberries and cream and not to be taken too seriously. Shakespeare’s Globe theatre company look set to change such perceptions when they open their outdoor tour of Romeo And Juliet in Glasgow next week as part of the West End festival.

For the two young actors taking the title roles of the doomed lovers, it will also be something of a homecoming. Richard Madden and Ellie Piercy both studied in Glasgow prior to turning professional. Indeed, Madden has yet to graduate from the acting course at RSAMD, and, as well as facing the pressures of playing such a meaty role in close proximity to the audience, will have the added anxiety of being assessed and graded by his tutors.

“This is the end of my third year,” says Madden following a Saturday mornin…

Suzy Glass – Message from the Skies

Freedom of movement matters to Suzy Glass, the arts and events producer currently overseeing the second edition of Message from the Skies.This animated literary derive around the city forms part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, and runs right through till Burns’ Night. Glass’ concerns are inherent in the event itself, which has commissioned six writers from different disciplines and experiences to each pen a love letter to Europe. Each writer has then paired up with a composer and visual artist or film-maker, with the results of each collaboration projected in monumental fashion on the walls of one of half a dozen of the capital’s most iconic buildings.
With venues stretching from the south side of Edinburgh to Leith, and with one city centre stop requiring a walk up Calton Hill, there is considerable legwork required to complete the circuit. It shouldn’t be considered a race, however, and audiences are free to move between venues at their leisure, visiting each site on d…