Muster Station – Leith Academy

Written by Nicola McCartney, Tawona Sitholé, Uma Nada-Rajah & Ben Harrison

Directed by Ben Harrison

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The unthinkable is now a near-distant reality, in which the United Kingdom finds itself at the mercy of the growing climate catastrophe. Deemed ‘The Great Wave’, there are days, maybe only hours left, before the country is all but wiped out.

To mark the end of the Edinburgh International Festival’s four-year outreach residency at Leith Academy, Muster Station written by Ben Harrison with Tawona Sitholé, Uma Nada-Rajah and Nicola McCartney, sees a quartet of accelerated, heightened-realism scripts and promenade storytelling distort our lives, as its political vision re-draws the established connections between immigration, colonialism, class, and wealth.

The ambitious nature of Ben Harrison’s promenade production makes bold attempts to strong-arm any sense of entitlement or individuality as we are ushered into the building, cattle-like, and assigned numbers and groups. No name, phones away, no communication. The intention is not to merely be a nuisance but to dehumanise. Something the cast grasp, as orders are barked, and personal questions probed inside a processing centre.

Without expounding too much, the individual nature of the four stories still maintains a general ‘flow’ across the performance. Each is written by a separate writer, contributing to the overall aesthetic and presence of Harrison’s ‘arc’ of Muster Station. Perhaps the tightest, and most intimate, is Tawona Sitholé’s robust conversation held within a holding pen – complete with metal railings. It’s an intense piece where the balance of authority swings between Pauline Goldsmith and Joseph Ogeleka’s Chamu, already an established refugee, desperately searching for his lost son. It’s the closest we come to the performers outside of the initial distressing encounter, and the shared agony and resentment on their faces is intense.

And within moments our instincts begin to kick in. The distrust of those around us, of just how to ‘survive’ this experience. It feels mad, attempting to strategize or how to cheat the trials or how to ensure you have a ‘spot’ in the future, but this is precisely Harrison’s intention. Small snippet breadcrumbs offer a more fluid insight into the evening ahead; a woman buying her way to safety, a disgruntled cleaner, a queue-jumper, and another whose addition may make you keep an eye on your numbers.

There’s a more surreal tactic involved as we sit our examinations before entering Finland, the country willing to accept British refugees. Even after our own attitudes to people fleeing war and trauma. Nicola McCartney’s tale surrounds the integration concept, as Olivia Sikora’s Finnish immigration officer opens and toys with story books, each revealing a series of props, lighting, and magical surprises to keep the audience guessing. Yet, behind the comedy and detachment, there’s a graphic and sterling performance in how Sikora portrays the Finnish officer. It’s a pristine example of how humour has a place in tragedy, how it demonstrates atrocities in an ‘appetising’ manner.

The school swimming pool makes a staggeringly effective stage for Harrison’s own story of three youths who take fate into their own hands. Tijan Sarr, Shyvonne Ahmmad and Naomi Stirrat holidaying off the coasts of the now 45-degree weather Fife as they discuss suicide pacts, the futility of it all, and whose life is worth sparing when the weather begins to turn – the screens adorning the walls casting a grim and disastrous prospect for the trio. 

But between these, there’s an extensive need to fill the silence and make us wait. Wating; so much waiting.

Likely the point to demoralise us – to remind audiences that whilst an experience, Muster Station is not the typical jaunt to the theatre, but it can’t help but play into the comfortable hands of those who paid for this experience, rather than the agony of those forced into it.

The issue being that the immersion dips somewhat as we are ushered between sections – an oversight in Harrison’s mechanics, Muster Station tiptoes ever so on the edges of brilliance, slipping into the cracks it cannot fill without distressing or committing to the art of immersion. And where it fully recedes into the gaps is with the finale, an almost backtracking of what has come before as we gather – blankets and shattered hopes at survival. There’s a little too much of a deep breath which blows away the worries and concerns which should be leaving us with the question ‘is it all over?’ rather than ‘is this over?’

As our world builds up borders, our theatres must endeavour to tear down walls. Pioneering site-specific theatre, Grid Iron Co. continue to see such barriers and rip them apart.

Social inequality is a defining stain on our time on this earth, but it’s nothing new. Its correlation with the climate crisis merely highlights the issue further, the two dysfunctional offshoots of the prolonged accumulation of wealth and power. Muster Station attempts to solidify our understandings by transforming our sympathy into empathy but is let down by its reluctance of true immersion, punctuating moments of interconnected crisis with levity and artistic licensing.

Shattering walls

Muster Station runs at Leith Academy until August 26th

Tickets for which may be obtained here.

Photo Credit – Jess Shurte

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