Reviewer's Rating

‘Kin’ is the eighth production by the physical theatre comapny Gecko, led by Amit Lahav. They are well known for their meticulous creative process, spread over at least three years, during which a series of emotionally eloquent scenes are devised in which all the elements and techniques of theatre-craft are deployed with the exception of textual dialogue and narrative flow in a single language. In this case the theme is the perils of migration as two separate families leave home for new ones encountering separation, brutality, exploitation and racism along the way.

The result is a sequence of intensely expressive scenes that focus on departures and arrivals, cruel encounters at border posts, partings from loved ones, and rough interrogations. But there are also more intimate episodes focused on moments of shared hope, reunion and rebuilding in lands of sanctuary. The action avoids a tone of uniform horror and disapproval, tempting and easy as that might be, and finds a great deal of light and shade, humour and individuality as the characters learn to squeeze out moments of happiness and relief whenever the pressure to move on slackens. This is one of the great advantages of physical theatre that has no text to hide behind – it has to evoke and describe the full variety of human experience if it is to communicate – significant gesture and movement become the single focus and substitute narrative. Here these are thought through and presented to the audience at a deep pyschological level.

The action takes its inspiration from an inter-war migration undertaken by Leah, Amit Lahav’s grandmother, in order to escape Yemen. It is the story of her Jewish family that begins the play before they are joined by an Asian family in jointly choreographed manoeuvres that express in turn both solidarity and then later conflict between the refugee groups. Each performer creates a defined character and speaks in their own language, so that in no way is this a mute performance. We also witness encounters with border guards who engage in a militaristic choreography driven by a Balkan musical soundscape and reject or accept migrants with whimsical thuggishness.

Music, soundscape, set, costumes and lighting bulk even greater in significance when there is no connected text, and each in this case was notable. Dave Price, a regular collaborator with Gecko, includes his own music together with ethnic and folk music chosen to reflect the countries the refugees move from and journey through. The set, by Rhys Jarman, is a bare and austere island, but with a built-in revolve to provide the sense of continuous journey. In a dynamic scenario with many small groups coalescing and dispersing the lighting is key. Chris Swain’s scheme assists the action architecturally by narrowing the focus on certain sections of the stage while the rest of the set remains in darkness to cover entrances and exits. Costumes generally indicate national and ethnic origins, whether Jewish or South Asian, while the border guards wear a sinister black and white uniforms that suggest the Balkans.

My one criticism, one I often find myself making these days, is that the show could have been concentrated to even greater effect into one hour. However, as it stands it is still a remarkable and thought-provoking achievement that makes you think afresh about how theatre can stimulate new reflections on current affairs without preaching or patronising. As a result, at the end, when the actors come out of character and reveal their own true identities and migrant histories you really do feel that this a a powerful moment of earned witness and searing testimony.