This season the Young Vic theatre has taken the action from one metal box – in the form of a submarine in Kursk – to another, the altogether less glamorous surroundings of the back of a lorry providing the setting for Clare Bayley’s thought-provoking and heart-wrenching The Container.
Set in a corrugated iron container, dumped inconspicuously outside the Waterloo venue, The Container tells the story of the final days of five people’s plight to leave behind their war torn countries to reach the security of England, each filled with naive ideas of opportunity and the kindness of strangers that the audience awkwardly laughs along with.
As we take our makeshift seats on wooden blocks and plastic crates and are plunged into complete darkness, the container is filled with the sound of engines and begins to jerk and vibrate as the journey begins. Hidden in corners are the five, terrified refugees: Ahmad, a proud business man, unable to comprehend how his life has reached this point; Jemal, a young Turkish Kurd on his third attempt to smuggle back into the country he grew up in which houses his girlfriend and child; Fatima, who has been hardened to the things she has seen but still harbours unrealistic fantasies about the life her son is already living in England; her ‘daughter’ Asha, whose poignant observations and naive hopes are both dangerous and heart-breaking; lastly, Mariam, a teacher whose husband was killed by the Taliban for teaching girls, who harbours a dangerous secret.
In the cramped surroundings, the audience is put at the forefront of the action as the group, brought together out of circumstance rather than desire, fight, starve and survive together; eating, sleeping, going to the toilet and being sick in the vehicle they have placed all their remaining hope into. With just brief glimpses of their pasts revealed, they remain as much strangers to each other as they are to the trespassing audience observing their struggles. And when it comes to putting a price on each other’s lives, the cruelty and selfishness of humanity becomes disconcertingly clear.
Setting the play in as realistic a setting as possible clearly serves to limit the boundaries between the action taking place and the audience, creating what is both a confusing and effective experience. The play is lit entirely by the torches held by the characters, disorientating the audience as much as the characters themselves, who, having travelled from Turkey, Somalia and beyond in the prison of the sealed metal box, often have no idea exactly where in the world they are and what borders are left to cross.
The outside elements become as much a part of the experience as the action taking place in front of you, as you begin to question whether the deafening rain drilling down on the metal box is real, whether the police car racing past is just part of the soundtrack and most frighteningly of all, whether the group of people laughing outside are simply passers by or border guards, about to open the heavy metal doors and crush the dreams and safety of the refugees who are determined to live a life we so easily take for granted.