Written by Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati
Directed by Neil Bettles
We hear about it; those fleeing war-torn nations across channels and open bodies of water. We hear the twisted propaganda regarding small boats, dinghies and rafts. We sometimes even see the people or their bodies washing up on our shores.
But we know nothing of their trials, their lives and their experiences.
Award-winning theatre company ThickSkin returns their highly action-packed, physical and harrowing show How Not To Drown to stages, returning to its Edinburgh Fringe debut home at the Traverse Theatre. It charts the true story of a child asylum-seeker arriving in the UK. But stow away your pity and merely replace it with a genuine thirst to share in Dritan’s tale. A life-affirming, if painful, story about something most of us have never, and should never, gone through.
The initial half of the production itself could span endless hours of eye-opening content, as Dritan, a child who makes the perilous journey over waves, land and borders following his parent’s concerns of growing war – overcoming those who would seek to harm him on dry land, and the elements which throw him across waters. His penchant for reading people and gauging their auras and intentions essentially saves Dritan, able to weed out the callous from aiding. There is a rich command in Dritan Kastrati’s performance. Yes, that Dritan, for any still unsure of the validity of it all. The latter portion of the show focuses on Dritan’s early life in the UK, the prejudices and pit-holes in our attitudes and treatment of those claiming asylum.
Immersing oneself into reliving the past, whilst separating enough to convey the narrative is a fragile line which Kastrati accomplishes beautifully, indeed better than their initial 2019 performance. Humour is still held as both shield and spear throughout, true to its presence in even the direst situations of life. The audience grows in comfort with laughing alongside the harrowing, undoubtedly aided in feeling they’re free to do so by the production’s narrative-led, episodic structure. It takes time to adjust, but what aids tremendously is the switching of the lead role of Dritan between Kastrati’s more narrative style, and Ajjaz Awad’s energy or Sam Reuben’s more physical performance as a young boy puffing their chest to survive.
Frequently doubling as Dritan’s parents, foster carers, and various gang members and those aiding in Dritan’s travels, Emse Bayley and Daniel Cahill demonstrate a firm dedication to character – shifting between the roles with remarkable pacing, the pair finding both a pathos as Dritan’s parents without resorting to cheap melodrama. As an ensemble cast, the performances are spectacularly raw and authentic, which respects the experiences of those who have gone through asylum but presents it to an audience that the majority of those watching never have.
Gravity, both literal and metaphorical, is a plaything for director Bettles and Jonnie Riordan’s choreography, transforming this narrative-led production into moments of physical theatre – something the show could benefit more from. Traversing the hundreds of miles How Not To Drown does in a mere ninety minutes, the physicality, doubled roles and exceptionally simple – though slick manipulation of Becky Minto’s tilted platform is a visually striking addition of momentum, and when struck by Zoe Spurr’s lighting at the right angle magnifies its presence.
Rippling beneath the depths of agonising loss, truth, and experience – language sits squarely on the chest of the production. Though performed in English, it carries an unfamiliar rhythmic pacing which still suggests Dritan’s discomfort with the language, emphasising his difficulties and reluctance to pick it up at first. It’s a powerful tool wielded by Bettles, after all, the immediate recognition that someone speaking a different language than you is unfortunately the initial sign of an ‘other’ to some. The acclimatisation of culture plays a significant role, as does this country’s sadistically callous fascination with immigration, ‘rules’ over rights, and vapid sense of superiority.
Thematically, How Not To Drown is one of the most important shows you’ll watch this year. Its narrative-led handholding of the audience offers comfort through a particularly harrowing ninety minutes of physical theatre and emotional disruption. Nicola McCartney and Dritan Kastrati’s script captures the humanity of it all, from the eye-line of those we would seek to protect the most: children. Touching, and slick in the physical and stage design, Kastrati’s journey is one everyone should take the time to watch and re-evaluate their understanding away from the current news cycle.
The Most Important Show You’ll Watch This Year
How Not To Drown runs at the Traverse Theatre until April 1st. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm, with an audio-described matinee at 14.30pm on Saturday.
Running time – One hour and thirty-five minutes without interval.
Tickets begin from £17.00 (con. available) and may be obtained here.