If you enjoy theatre in your face, Clare Bayley’s The Container is for you.
The story follows five strangers, Fatima (Bola Aiyeola), Asha (Ubah Guled), Jemal (Adriano Sobretodo Jr.), Ahmad (Victor Ertmanis) and Mariam (Lara Arabian), who’ve paid to be smuggled across Europe to England. They flee war to be reunited with their families, hopes held up by stoicism and having romanticized England into a place of limitless kindness and wealth. They travel in a sweltering, poorly ventilated shipping container on the back of a truck, with little food, water, or information about their progress, except for periodic visits from The Agent (Constantine Karzis), the man they paid for the privilege to ride.
We’re spared much of the work of imagining their journey, because the play is staged in a sweltering, poorly-ventilated, 20-foot shipping container fitted with long, bare wooden benches tucked behind the theatre. It isn’t attached to a truck, and it doesn’t move, but the illusion is stifling from the first moment on. You either force your heart to settle until you adapt and sweat becomes the norm, or you take up the usher on the pre-show instructions on what to do if you need to leave (there’s no re-admission).
Conquering these initial anxieties reinforced how the characters’ deplorable conditions were preferable to where they had come from. It felt obvious that survival overrules whatever laws you might have to break to achieve it.
The Container is an invitation to test one’s views on refugees and illegal immigration without the benefit of changing the channel they happen to be on. Bayley’s script does its part by being practically invisible in never pulling you out of the experience, while director Zachary Florence uses the tediousness of living in the back of a truck to show how anything happening outside of it is unbearably fascinating.
The cast follows through on their end by unspooling principled, flawed, and therefore relatable characters that brush up against extraordinary circumstances. Their struggle to handle the need for extreme selfishness against their desire to endure together is liable to reassemble hearts into more humanist configurations.
Uniformly empathic and a middle finger to armchair editorializing, The Container returns dignity to the displaced with lessons in perspective as impactful as that first wave of sunlight when someone finally unlatches the door.
The Container runs until Sept. 18 in the Berkeley Street Theatre courtyard. For more information, visit www.canadianstage.com.