‘Some stories are more powerful than others.’
In Douglas Rintoul’s devised monologue Elegy, the above is a piece of advice given to an asylum speaker preparing for an interview with the officials who’ll determine whether he will be allowed sanctuary or forced to return to the regime from which he is fleeing. But far from a cynical look at how the refugee system can be exploited, this is a deeply impassioned cri de coeur about the horrific realities of life for the LGBT community in post-liberation Iraq, an exceptionally powerful and haunting piece of theatre.
Based on a number of interviews from the Human Rights Watch and Stonewall, our narrator is an unnamed gay Iraqi who takes us through his personal history of cautiously optimistic though unrequited first love and the discovery of a careful but active gay community, through to the harsh dawn of a new ultra-conservatism which turned onto even the slightest intimation of homosexual behaviour and his ultimate desperate flight from his homeland.
But as if dazed, traumatised by this horrendous sequence of events, the narrative line is shattered. Sam Phillips’ central character reels from point to point with devastating precision, shards of unconscionable stories and fragments of orange-scented memories unravelling in disordered disbelief at what life has become, unrelenting in its tumultuous drive. He also speaks throughout in the third person, suggesting either a coping mechanism to deal with events on a personal level or a greater universality coming from the composite nature of the source material, speaking for anyone, everyone, who has experienced such vehement intolerance, or perhaps both of these.
Rintoul directs with a careful restraint which keeps the content from being unbearable (just about) to listen to and Dani Bish’s lighting design is a masterclass in what can be achieved with just the subtlest of shifts. The production’s elusive nature may frustrate some, but it is this blurring and intermingling of elements that lends it such an insistent power, exposing the realities of institutionalised homophobia in such regimes and crucially humanising the refugee experience. The decision to leave is one of the most starkly powerful in the play – “I can’t become a refugee, I have a mobile phone…”, a seemingly trite comment but one which reveals the richness of life that so many are forced to leave behind.
Elegy may not be the most comfortable of shows to watch, but it is assuredly one of the most vital in London right now.