This last week hundreds of migrants have drowned in the the Mediterranean – the total who have died is still unclear. Earlier this month, Anders Lustgarten’s play, Lampedusa, premiered at London’s Soho Theatre. Here is Stefano, one-time Italian fisherman now employed to recover bodies from the sea:

The bodies of the drowned are more varied than you’d think. Some are warped, rotted, bloated to three times their natural size, twisted into fantastical and disgusting shapes like the curse in that story my grandmother used to tell me. Dead of winter. Chills down yer spine. Others are calm, no signs of struggle, as if they’re dozing in the sun on a lazy summer afternoon and a tap of the arm will bring them gently awake. Those are the hardest. Because they’re the most human.

Lustgarten is angry, and his anger is palpable through the words of his two storytellers, Stefano and Denise. Denise is a debt collector for a payday loan company in Leeds. Last year, more than 4000 refugees drowned making the illegal sea crossing from North Africa to Europe. Lampedusa, midway between the Libyan coast and Sicily, bore the brunt of this humanitarian disaster.

The European Unions’s response has been to attempt deterrence, cancelling support for Italy’s Mare Nostrum programme and replacing it with patrols close in to the Italian shoreline, leaving little hope of rescue when the smugglers’ overloaded boats sink. As a deterrent, this will fail. As Stefano hears from a survivor: “if those men in their offices knew what we were coming from, they’d know we will never, ever stop”.

And yet this is a play about hope, both for those caught up in the bitter tragedy of the Mediterranean and for those navigating the complex fault lines of the city.

Denise is working class, mixed race and fed up:

Spat at on the bus this morning. Couple of public schoolboys I’d say. I’d not heard ‘chinky cunt’ and ‘fucking migrant’ in that accent till recently. But lately I get it quite a bit. Middle class people think racism is free speech now. Tip of the iceberg, Farage. Tip of a greasy, gin-soaked iceberg of cuntery. The matchless bitterness of the affluent.

She is working to see herself through university, determined to leave her mother’s legacy behind her. She’s cocky and self-assured about the evasions and excuses of the people’s whose debts she’s employed to call in; she’s seen it all and she’s unmoved. But then she’s touched by an act of irrational kindness:

Carolina her name is. Portuguese lass, on her own with a little kid. Jayden. … In the end she invited me over to dinner. Tomorrow night. She’s making some Portuguese speciality with salt cod in it. Sounds absolutely disgusting to be honest, but … I shouldn’t really go. It’s against policy and all that. But I think she’s a bit lonely. Doesn’t know that many people over here. I think she could do with the company.

For Stefano, hope comes from Modibo, a musician and mechanic from Mali, and a survivor washed up on the beach at Lampedusa.

Stefano is wary: “you try to keep them at arm’s length. If you let them get close, you never know what they might ask for”. But Modibo persists, fixing the engine on Stefano’s boat, offering him coffee. When Stefano learns that Modibo’s wife Aminata is making the crossing to join him, he offers to break from procedure, to go out and search for her boat.

There is a storm of Shakespearian proportions: “there’s a flash of lightning and out of the corner of my eye, this Leviathan looms. A monstrous wave as tall as a tower block, so tall it has little waterfalls tumbling from its crest. I freeze. And Leviathan pounces”.

Against our expectations, Aminata is rescued and is reunited with Modibo:

We pull up to the pier. It’s packed, a wall of people, and I’m scanning for Modibo’s face but there’s a splash, Aminata’s over the side and into the shallows, and there’s a kind of keening noise from the pier and a second splash and it’s him, he’s in the water too! These two torpedoes rocketing together, to meet in an explosion of sheer joy and relief and the ecstasy of deepest pain averted. Limbs entangled, rolling over, yelling, laughing, water splashing everywhere, this fantastical new sea creature. Tears and hands over mouths and hugging on the pier.

Hope is unfashionable in the traditional critiques of power but Denise sees through the shallow formulations of her politics course, the exam question about “the perils of untrammelled materialism”: “you could see the answer they wanted. The home of original thinking”. She answers differently, about “our ability to walk away from delusions, from traps, to save ourselves from our baser instincts”.

Stefano and Denise are saved from the traps, delusions and their baser instincts by the shadow figures of Modibo and Carolina. In touching Stefano and Denise’s lives they mitigate the bitterness of the unemployed fisherman, reduced to the morbid work of recovering the dead, and the woman trapped in the intercedes of race, gender and class, hardened to the circumstances of others. Connection comes from food and music; Carolina’s bacalau, the “salt cod thing” which turns out to be “delicious. It were absolutely delicious”. Modibo’s music: “a song called Lampendusa. It’s meant to be about all the people who’ve come here seeking a better life. The drowning and the terror. The hope and the futures. I don’t know if I can hear all that in there personally, but it’s beautiful. Listen”.

Theatre like this works as a space apart. The staging is concentric circles of bare wooden benches, with Stefano and Denise moving among us. We are the bystanders on the pier at Lampendusa, and we are beside Denise as she trudges through Leeds: “four o’clock this afternoon, soaked to the skin, I’d been up and down more piss-stained staircases than a Channel 4 benefits documentary”.

From this space apart, the de-humanization of bureaucratic systems becomes more sharply apparent – the tendencies towards what Hannah Arendt called the “banality of evil”. What state of mind is required in making the decision to withdraw the search for smuggler’s boats before they can capsize, killing thousands in a year? What kind of numb detachment is required to hold down a job collecting debt or denying benefits? This is theatre that probes, exposes, challenges, making us think differently. It is why we need the creative arts and the critical humanities, and why those behind the desks may fear them.

Lustgarten is uncompromising: “at the heart of our self-delusion about migration is a wilful misunderstanding about why people come. They don’t come to soak the benefits system, because hardly any of them know it exists. They come out of desperation, because their country is on fire or their government is repressive or climate change is killing their crops. Often that’s down to the West”. This makes hope all the more vital, the only way of countering the Leviathan, the giant waves of unfeeling bureaucracy that douse the sparks of humanity.

Lampedusa ends with Stefano’s challenge: “I defy you to see the joy in Modibo and Aminata’s faces and not feel hope. I defy you”.


Lampedusa, by Anders Lustgarten. Directed by Steven Atkinson. Louise Mai Newberry (Denise), Ferdy Roberts (Stefano). Soho Theatre, London. Play published by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Anders Lustgarten: “Refugees don’t need our tears. They need us to stop making them refugees”.   Guardian, 18 April 2015.

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