Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
The first thing that captures my attention as I enter the auditorium is Becky Minto’s extraordinary set: a raised island of wooden planks, stark, powerful, simultaneously ramshackle and magisterial. There’s no other set dressing here, just two high towers of lighting on either side of the island, leaving lighting designer Zoe Spurr and composer/sound designer Alexandra Faye Braithwaite to layer on the atmosphere. Onto the dramatically sloping set climb the performers, five actors led by Dritan Kastrati, whose real life story is the inspiration for what we are about to watch (and who co-wrote the script with Nicola McCartney). But it’s clear from the outset that this will be an ensemble piece, as each of the actors in turn – Ajjaz Awad, Esme Bayley, Daniel Cahill and Sam Reuben – step forward to announce that they too are Dritan.
The drama unfolds, as the cast move back and forth on that precarious island, each actor in turn slipping into the role of Dritan, and skipping nimbly out again to portray a whole selection of other characters. There is never a moment’s confusion as to who is who. Director/ choreographer Neil Bettles has the cast drilled to perfection, as – with a modicum of props – they evoke a series of diverse locations and situations… and then, in a jaw-dropping coup de théâtre, the island begins to move.
Dritan’s story is one of abandonment and survival. At the age of eleven, he’s despatched by his well-meaning father from the family home in Albania, as war threatens to engulf the country. What follows is Dritan’s arduous attempt to get to his older brother somewhere in England, a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey. A sequence that portrays a perilous sea crossing feels horribly immersive, capturing the panic and uncertainty of the situation.
Once in the UK, Dritan is confronted by the punishing series of hurdles faced by all young asylum seekers – a thankless procession of foster families, social workers and interpreters, each trying to give this boy whatever he asks for, but failing to provide him with the one thing he really needs: a family. We watch as his hopes and expectations crumble into dust.
How Not to Drown isn’t easy viewing, yet I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s a powerful and affecting examination of the failure of bureaucracy, demonstrating all too clearly the problems that occur when it comes to caring for a child, cast adrift from everything he knows. Dritan Kastrati is only one of millions of people who have survived this awful situation, but his play brilliantly illuminates the experience like a beacon shining in a storm.