Holden Street Theatres
Until 18 Mar 2018

Review by John Wells

I should declare my position immediately: I consider the way that mainstream debate has demonized refugees to be superficial, politically expedient, racist and cowardly. Compassion is lacking. And knowledge is the key to compassion. Knowledge springs from listening, understanding, and questioning.

Henry Naylor’s furious and bracing play “Borders” (the fourth in his series examining Middle Eastern conflicts) adds to the debate in an intelligent and nuanced way. Naylor structures his text with two separate, unconnected narratives, told in brief monologue grabs. There is the story of Sebastian, the idealistic photographer, and the story of Syrian girl “Nameless” (the name she gives herself), a teenaged graffiti artist. This back-and-forth structure mostly works well, ratcheting up the tension as each thread moves to its climax. The crackling dissonance between the two stories adds to the sense of dread and discomfort. The structure means the two stories are a bit disjointed to begin with – Nameless’ tale takes while to settle, and Sebastian’s crumpled laughs sit a little uneasily – but this quickly improves.

Michael Cabot directs this production (assisted by Louise Skaaning) with a wonderful pace and lightness. There are small and smart pieces of stagecraft – and sensitive, atmospheric lighting – which augment the wordiness of the play.

Graham O’Mara is relaxed and funny as Sebastian. His progression (or descent?) from wide-eyed, penniless photographer to a rich and jaded celebrity whore is hilariously awful, and quietly depressing. We are all complicit, Naylor reminds us, when we click on a Kardashian link or flick through a magazine story about Robbie Williams. Naylor lobs in a few wry reflections on the status of the media and the worrying future of reportage.

Avital Lvova gives a committed and uncompromising portrayal of a snarling and desperate young woman. Nameless gives an unshakeable answer to the question “Why would anyone get on a smuggler’s leaky boat?” Lvova is never anything less than compelling. Her physical intensity and ferocity give off a shimmering heat. It is a startling performance. (Lvova was equally compelling in Naylor’s “Angel” in the 2017 Fringe.)

This is a serious and intellectually angry play. The message that the West has already lost the battle against implacable extremism is haunting and resonant.

4.5 stars (out of 5)