“I just – I can’t believe this is England”
Hannah Khalil’s intelligent exploration of the Israeli-Palestine conflict Scenes from 68* Years was one of my top-ranked plays of last year and so I was delighted to be able to see her new play The Scar Test, albeit in the oppressive, claustrophobic heat of the Soho Upstairs at the height of summer. And with that knowledge of at least some of Khalil’s theatrical style, it was a pleasure to be able to sink into her idiosyncratic storytelling and be so thoroughly challenged by its subject matter.
Here, Khalil has turned her focus to the experience of female detainees at the notorious Yarl’s Wood detention centre and the many, many indignities suffered by those trying to work their way through the knots and prejudices of our immigration system. And as with that previous play, multiple verbatim strands are splintered into non-linear episodes, some coalescing into something approaching an overall arc, some disappearing into the ether, forgotten victims neglected by us all.
Sara Joyce’s direction responds beautifully to the style, introducing emotive movement work from Sinead O’Keeffe which deepens in significance as it recurs throughout, the revelation of the jumpers also serving as an adroit way of exploiting these women’s bodies any further. For the grim realities of life for those who end up here, the abuses they’re running from sadly matched by the different kind of abuses suffered in the name of security, means we’re frequently left shaken by how far it goes.
The horrors that could leave a person mute (an absolutely superb Rebecca Omogbehin), the deportation to a country she’s never been to threatened to the British-born child of illegal immigrants, the desperation of the over-worked lawyers fighting for their causes, the dispassionate way with which the security guards carry out their business. Having the ensemble rotate through any number of these roles keeps a meaningful balance through the stark feelings of the play but the sombre nature of Zoe Spurr’s lighting maintains the deadly serious air.
Fiercely felt, ferociously told, The Scar Test is the kind of discomfiting theatrical experience that lingers long in the mind for all the right reasons. Khalil has a real gift for lodging the humanity of a story right where it matters and so creates theatre that is genuinely thought-provoking – I think we’ll be talking about this writer for years to come.