Roundabout at Summerhall, Edinburgh
Sami Ibrahim’s play is a fable about immigration. We meet Elif (Sara Hazemi) as a teenager, newly washed up on the shores of a mythical island. She finds work with a rich landowner, herding and shearing sheep, spinning clouds from their wool. It’s a solitary life. But then she meets the landowner’s son (Samuel Tracy) and she’s smitten, and her story spirals out of control.
At first, this feels like a fairytale. The language is lyrical and there’s magic in the air. Elif is a sweet-natured dreamer, happy to accept her lot; a heroine in the Cinderella mould. Soon, though, reality intervenes. Elif has a baby, and the landowner’s son has gone.
Elif’s daughter, Lily (Princess Khumalo), is more down-to-earth, more practical than her mum. She recognises the stories for what they are and calls bullshit. She can’t escape them though: Elif isn’t ‘registered’, and if she’s not, then nor can Lily be. The clock is ticking down to Lily’s eighteenth birthday. Unless she’s registered by then, she has no right to stay.
This is an ingenious way to convey the absurdity of the UK’s immigration system. Couched in the apparel of a fairytale, it heightens our sense of right and wrong. We recognise the innocent persecuted heroine; we know that she’s supposed to win. We also know the villains and that they’re supposed to lose. But, despite Elif’s best efforts, that’s not what’s happening. The parallels are all too obvious. What sort of people are we, always letting the baddies win?
At the beginning, the three storytellers are all enthusiastic, clamouring to have their voices heard, each wanting to tell their version of the tale; by the end, even Elif can’t spin a yarn that’s strong enough to cast away the clouds. She desperately articulates her vision of Utopia, but harsh reality intrudes into her imagination, corrupting her dream.
This ensemble piece by Paines Plough is every bit as inventive and compelling as we’ve come to expect, and Yasmin Hafesji’s direction is both playful and assured. I especially love the use of props, with wooden sheep, a balloon and a Matryoshka all adding to the folk-tale tone. The muted colour palette – all greys and browns – evokes the misery of a rain-soaked isle, as does the muted lighting (by Rory Beaton).
Ibrahim has successfully created a kind of whimsical polemic. I’ve never seen anything quite like this before.