Julia Taudevin’s new play about asylum- seekers has roots in her political activism - and her own family
In 2005, photojournalist Robin Taudevin was living in Glasgow to document the city’s asylum-seeker and refugee community. Many of his images are of kids playing football, huddled in phoneboxes, faces painted, laughing. Looming in the background are the high-rise flats where they and their families were – and still are – housed. Taudevin’s photographs are honest, playful and poignant, particularly given that many of the families shown were living under the fear of dawn raids and the threat of detention in centres such as Dungavel.
When Taudevin’s sister, Julia, an actor and playwright, came to visit her brother after living and working in London for a decade, neither of them could have understood nor predicted the lasting connection that would be made – a connection that’s now finding expression in her new play, a centrepiece of this year’s Refugee Week Scotland (17-23 June).
Some Other Mother is set high up in a tower block where ten-year-old Star and her mother await the outcome of their claim for asylum. Struggling to cope with the pressure of their situation and their uncertain future, Star creates a fantastical world into which she can escape as her mother’s mental health deteriorates. What Taudevin has created is a surreal and poetic vision of the impact of the immigration system on one girl and her mother, but her intention reaches far beyond any one story.
“It’s really important that Some Other Mother is not seen as a documentary,” she says, perched on a sofa in a rehearsal space. “It’s entirely my imagination. It’s been created through years and years of communal storytelling but then taken into my own practice very much separate from my activism. It’s not a documentary but it’s not a celebration either. It really is an angry call to action because we are in a situation where it’s more urgent than ever for us to reach out and solidify as communities.”
Taudevin moved to Glasgow in 2007. Outside of her own family connections –she grew up in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea but spent her summers on the Isle of Lewis, where her mother is from – the asylum-seeker and refugee community was her first social network.
She had met the families who lived in Kingsway Court and on Lincoln Avenue through her brother and his work meant that she was welcomed and trusted. After finishing his project in Glasgow, Robin Taudevin had moved to East Timor where, tragically, he drowned while free-diving in 2006.
As an artist-activist, Taudevin used her brother’s photographs in her community work to raise awareness of what was going on, the difficulties that people were facing, and the racism they experienced, to allow them to tell their stories. Soon she got involved in a weekly drop-in women’s group, which she still attends, a place where women can come along with their kids and just be together, sharing their stories, supporting each other.
“That was my first way into a regular, weekly relationship with the community, especially women and children,” she says. “It’s a friendship group, a place where people can just relax while the kids run around. I’m going there tonight. It’s really mixed – there are Scottish women as well as women from other countries. It’s open to everyone.”
Taudevin witnessed first hand how women and their children are caught not just in the immigration system but in the benefit system and the social work system, a matrix which pushes people to their limits and shows only too clearly how stretched the meagre support systems which exist can become. The stories she heard provided the basis for Some Other Mother.
“The asylum system is the dehumanising and brutalising of an individual,” she says. “It removes any sense of agency, the ability to control your future or know what’s going to happen. That’s regardless of what’s happened to get you to that point – no matter how traumatising your experiences have been.”
It was in 2008 that Taudevin knew she wanted to find a way to tell this story on stage but it was receiving the Playwright’s Studio New Writers Award in 2010 that gave her the opportunity to create and explore the world of Star and Mama.
Since then, Taudevin has worked with dramaturg Kieran Hurley (her co-writer on last year’s acclaimed Chalk Farm, a play about the London riots which will be performed again during this year’s Fringe) and director Catrin Evans (currently developing Grid Iron’s new large-scale site specific show, Leaving Planet Earth, for the EIF) to bring Some Other Mother to the stage.
For Evans, who’s also worked with the asylum-seeker and refugee community, Taudevin’s play was an irresistible challenge.
“I love stories that invite me to think about things in a different way, that make me think, ‘oh is that really what we accept?’ It’s beautifully written and I think Julia’s been really brave in terms of her desire to write the play that she really wanted to write.”
Taudevin, Evans and Hurley are often described as being at the heart of a newly reinvigorated political theatre movement in Scotland, combining artistic practice and activism. It’s something Taudevin welcomes.
“It feels really exciting,” she says. “Ever since I moved to Scotland I’ve been excited by the prospect of making political work that could have an impact. I work a lot in a collaborative way and obviously that comes from the desire to make work in a way that matches my experience as an activist which is non-hierarchical and which has debate at its core. There’s also a commitment that this will take as long as it takes and it has to have full integrity and everyone behind it.”
She smiles and shrugs and heads back into the rehearsal room.
• Some Other Mother opens at the Adam Smith Theatre, Kirkcaldy, on 6 June, and then tours to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh; Macrobert, Stirling; the Tron, Glasgow; Catstrand, New Galloway; Paisley Arts Centre; FTH, Falkirk; Solas Festival, Perth; Eden Court, Inverness, and Mull Theatre.