Shakespeare told us about the plight of refugees 400 years ago – it’s time to revisit his words

Andy Martin
The message of the play is that refugees are us; we are all human: Bernat Armangue/AP

A new piece of theatre coming to London reminds us why Shakespeare is still essential – to hold the mirror up to nature and to one of the most pressing humanitarian disasters of our time, the plight of refugees.

Whither Would You Go? is the brainchild of Ella Smith and Emma West. Their eureka moment occurred one year ago, while Donald Trump was threatening to send back Syrian children from the US, and Smith and West were in LA reading Shakespeare’s plea for refugees. In The Book of Sir Thomas More, he spoke of “wretched strangers… plodding to the ports and coasts for transportation” and “ruffians [who] would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes Would feed on one another”.

Smith said, “That was when were realised that nothing much has changed in 400 years. Our fear of the other, and a global diaspora – it was already happening back in 1600.” The language may be old but the conflict is fresh.

As Shakespeare said, “your mountainish inhumanity” – the inhumanity of our governments and the far-right protest groups trying to block rescue ships – needs to be addressed urgently. The issue has swelled into mainstream culture and it is no surprise that Whither Would You Go?, having gone down a storm in LA, is being brought to the West End.

The message of the play is that refugees are us; we are all human.

It features Jay Abdo, who was born in Damascus, the son of a Christian mother and a Muslim atheist father. In August 2011 the actor was leading a celebrity lifestyle in Syria – a star of stage and soap opera, he had all the privileges, he could travel anywhere, he was courted by princesses and presidents. Then, while filming in Beirut, he happened to give an interview to a journalist from the LA Times. When she switched off the tape recorder, he spoke about Syria, and how his friends had disappeared and been tortured. The interview appeared the next day, citing his views on the Assad regime and revealing his full name. He was forced to flee to Minneapolis, where his wife, Fadia Afashe, had a Fulbright scholarship, and where he found work delivering pizzas. Now, in his mid-fifties, he is at the Harold Pinter theatre for one night only on Sunday, together with a cast of British actors, telling his own story in the words of Shakespeare.

The show juxtaposes a series of videos of events taking place around the world with extracts from Shakespeare’s plays: we see a woman suffering in Myanmar followed by the “To be or not to be” soliloquy; a Syrian child bride followed by a scene from Romeo and Juliet; a torture scene and Richard II.

“It’s all about humanity,” said West. “Shakespeare lets us into the mindset. We’re presented with characters who are going through what we’re going through – what we all have in common.”

“It’s all about pain,” added Smith. “And Shakespeare just says it better.”

Jamie Lloyd, who has been called “the new Sam Mendes”, is directing, and the scenes are delivered by actors who are giving their services for free, including Martin Freeman, Olivia Williams, Roger Allam, Celia Imrie, and Lee Evans, emerging out of his retirement from the stage.

But this is more than just virtue-signaling. Olivia Williams, who performed in LA, said, “Contributing to 'Whither Would You Go?' is the answer to the question, ‘What can I do to help?’” The show has already raised around $30,000 for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

After six years of conflict in Syria, there are so many stories that will never be told. When Jay Abdo was growing up in Damascus, he said he was “brainwashed” into worshipping the regime of Assad (at that time the father of the current Bashar al-Assad). Children and their parents could be arrested for saying anything “out of line” regarding the “four pillars” – religion, sex, politics, the military. Now he can say what he likes on those subjects and in fact deliver speeches on stage about them in any one of several languages.

“It is such a relief,” he said.

Whither Would You Go? is timeless reportage. Harold Bloom said that Shakespeare “invented the human”. He is just as good on “mountainish inhumanity” too.

In 2016, there were at least 3,740 migrant deaths as they tried to reach Europe, surpassing the death toll in 2015. And in the 1600s, Shakespeare saw death as the only place from which no refugees are sent back: “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.” It is time to revisit his words.

Whither Would You Go? is playing on Sunday October 22 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Tickets can be booked on www.whitherwouldyougo.com

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