The world premiere of Cargo lands at the Arcola Theatre on 6th July. Written by Tess Berry-Hart, it draws on her own experiences as a founding member of Calais Action and explores the conflicted loyalties that arise when people are forced to flee their homes.
Cargo is an immersive thriller, tense and provocative, that reveals just how much people are willing to risk in search of a better life. We spoke to Tess about her experiences and her inspiration behind this heart-breaking play.
- Describe Cargo in 3 words.
Intense, immersive thriller
- What made you get involved with the refugee crisis and create Calais Action?
Back last summer I was so sick of seeing desperate pictures of refugees flashing up on my Facebook and Twitter feeds while nobody appeared to be doing anything about it. I read a newspaper article about a girl called Libby Freeman who had driven over to Calais with a van and delivered supplies, and I thought, “hey, I could do that too!” It was such a relief to realise there was a way I could actually help, so I got in touch with Libby, and together with people all over England we started collecting donations, and the group Calais Action – which now sends aid as far as Greece – was born.
- What aspects of your first-hand experiences were you able to bring to Cargo?
Underneath the friendliness, the mood of desperation is palpable in the camps – it’s dirty, there’s constant tension, different communities living on top of each other, and a sense of constant worry and paranoia that pervades everything. People have travelled from many different places and so many different countries and classes are represented – there are educated and middle class people in the camps, along with smugglers, ex-militia and people from the poorest groups of society. There’s also the constant sense of evaluation – is this person friendly? can he be trusted? – and the dynamics and relationships between the characters in Cargo revolve around the fearful need to put your trust in strangers.
- Tell me about the first time you visited Calais. What was the thing that stood out for you?
When I first visited Calais back in September 2015 it was in the middle of enormous upset; the police were illegally bulldozing some Syrian tents and not allowing the occupants to recover their possessions, there was tear gas flying everywhere, and that day I met this 12 year old Eritrean kid who had travelled unaccompanied all the way from his home. I couldn’t believe it, he was so small and his face was so worn and tired. It made me so frightened, not just for him and his safety, but because of what it meant about the world we live in. How could we allow this to happen? How can we ignore it?
- The play is described as being ‘immersive’ – what do you hope people will take away from the play?
There’s still a sense of “us and them” in the way many people look at refugees – as if they’re unable to put themselves in another’s shoes – so the fact that the play’s set inside a cargo container in the near-dark will, I hope, give some sense of how it feels to be a refugee: the stress, and the pressure, and the edginess; how much people are willing to put themselves through in search of safety and a better life.
- What do you think staging at the Arcola can offer your piece?
The Arcola’s downstairs studio is a fantastic space to transform into a cargo container – designer Max Dorey has created an amazing set – you won’t believe it!
- What has been your greatest struggle as a writer?
I used to have all sorts of personal struggles, but since I’ve been involved with the refugee solidarity effort I realise that no problems I ever have will come close to someone who’s had to flee their country and travel hundreds of miles in threatening conditions. It’s a huge perspective-changer.
- What’s next for you?
I’m working on an all-female play about long-term volunteers working in a refugee camp; the struggles and the sacrifices that people go through to help someone they’ve never met before. I’m constantly amazed and humbled by the amount of women involved in the grassroots aid-coordination movement and all that they have achieved. They deserve to be celebrated.