Theatre reviews: The Words | Private Lives

The Words offers inportant insights into the ordeal faced by refugees, while Private Lives famously features characters whose world could hardly be more insulated from any form of material hardship. Reviews by Joyce McMillan
Private Lives at Pitlochry Festival TheatrePrivate Lives at Pitlochry Festival Theatre
Private Lives at Pitlochry Festival Theatre

The Words, Oran Mor, Glasgow ****

Private Lives, Pitlochry Festival Theatre ***

In the world of people seeking refugee status in Britain, words could hardly matter more. Driven out of their homelands by war, poverty or oppression, they lose their language community along with the country where they grew up; and yet somehow, they have to navigate an immigration system in which a wrong word, or a fleeting self-contradiction, can mean the nightmare of deportation back into danger and misery, not to mention the new threat of summary transfer to Rwanda.

It goes without saying that in such a system, language interpreters play a vital role; and it’s around that tense relationship between a Iranian Kurdish refugee, Ashraf, and his Home Office interpreter, Nahid, that Glasgow-based writer and actress Maryam Hamidi builds her first Play, Pie And Pint drama The Words. The play is set during Ashraf’s initial big interview with an unseen Home Office official; and then two years later, when Ashraf and his family are still awaiting a decision on their status, and Nahid unexpectedly turns up to replace the usual interpreter at an art workshop where he and his wife have found a little sanity, and a safe place, in the painful limbo they inhabit.

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To say that Ashraf reacts badly to Nahid’s presence is an understatement; he interrupts her translation with hostile comments, tells her she has no business in this safe space, and generally dismisses her as a paid representative of an abusive government system, although she is in fact a freelance translator. What follows, though, is an increasingly fascinating dialogue – about the long-term impact of migration to Britain on Nahid’s family, and how it relates to the trauma of the current generation of refugees – that is beautifully sustained, in Catrin Evans’s production, by Mohsen Ghaffari as Ashraf and Saba Amini as Nahid. The play is staged, in part, to mark Glasgow’s annual Refugee Week; and for an insight into the ordeal faced by families like Ashraf’s, and the scars that can linger down the generations, it’s hard to imagine a richer refugee story than Hamidi’s play, delivered here with great commitment, and and impressive depth of feeling.

Noel Coward’s 1930 comedy Private Lives, by contrast, famously features characters whose world could hardly be more insulated from any form of material hardship or suffering. Rich, idle, and with nothing to disrupt their endless luxurious travels across Europe and the world, the two couples at the heart of the drama – the once married and shockingly irresponsible Elyot and Amanda, and their respective new spouses Victor and Sibyl – need focus on nothing but their own feelings; and it’s a measure of Coward’s theatrical and dramatic brilliance that he somehow nonetheless draws us into their ridiculous universe, working from the undoubted truth that given half a chance, most of us would be as self-absorbed, and as obsessed with our own romantic passions, as any of his characters – at least for some of the time.

Like Pitlochry’s current production of Michael Frayn’s famously hilarious Noises Off, Amy Liptrott’s staging of Private Lives is rarely quite as funny as it should be, and sometimes lacks the necessary layer of knowing satire and razor-sharp comic timing. Yet it boasts a fine art deco set and some gorgeous Thirties costumes (both by Ken Harrison), along with a deliciously dangerous and elegant central performance from Amelia Donkor as Amanda; and if this is not the sharpest version of Private Lives you will ever see, it still offers, as it did back in 1930, a glorious hour or two of perfect respite, from all the troubles of the day.

The Words is at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until 25 June; Private Lives is in repertoire at Pitlochry Festival Theatre until 30 September.