Tim Cowbury: “It’s death by a thousand questions”

Playwright Tim Cowbury tells us about The Claim, his new “unsettlingly entertaining” play that explores the process of seeking asylum.

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“ The Claim is inspired by a playful impulse that led to the exploration of a cold, hard reality.

“The playful impulse was to have as much fun as possible with language. What if a show started with someone telling a story and then gradually but radically morphed the story until, by the end of the show, it was unrecognisable?

“The idea was sparked when I watched someone try to pitch a two-minute idea at a theatre conference via an interpreter. A tough task, even with the stakes as low as getting interest or not in a project. But what if the stakes were higher? I was struck by the texture and dramatic potential of simultaneous translation: the pressure to speak on behalf of someone, be immediate and accurate. And the scope for it to go wrong, with equal measures of comedy and tragedy that might be wrought from that.

“The cold, hard reality this led me to is one lived daily by people across the UK. It’s a reality almost completely obscured from public view, yet absurdly one that is never far from the headlines. Should be impossible, right? Surely something that’s always in the headlines would be something we see clearly and know very well? But with this issue, for reasons that I think drive to the core of our muddled modern British identity, that’s not so. Welcome to the world of the UK’s asylum-seeking process, where absurdity rules.

Tim Cowbury (Image: Richard Davenport)
Tim Cowbury (Image: Richard Davenport)

“Researching The Claim took more than two years. I, and [the play’s director] Mark Maughan, met over a hundred people who’d been through, or were still caught in, the asylum system. We learnt that at the heart of the process lies a single mammoth interview, often comprising hundreds of questions and several hours in a bare, strip-lit room. And it’s here the stakes of the language game are as high as they can be.

“‘Claimants’ are expected to tell their harrowing story in a way that satisfies their British interviewer, in order to avoid being sent back to where they fear death awaits. And to do so through a poorly paid, casually employed interpreter they’ve literally just met. The scope for it to go wrong is absolutely, devastatingly huge.

“It became clear to us that the extent to which an asylum seeker is confused, pressured, blocked, mis-seen and misheard in this crucial moment is not an accident. And because it is not an accident, it feels incredibly important the story The Claim tells (or, true to research, mangles and twists) is told now.

“The Home Office, whose employees conduct the interviews, have a very simple remit: to reduce immigration at all costs. This is the policy of our elected government: death by a thousand questions. A politely worded, bureaucratic procedure carried out on people who are not UK citizens, not allowed into society during the limbo to decide if they can start on that path and so can be kept invisible.

“The Claim tries to address this invisibility without giving easy answers. It begins as a comic puzzle for the audience to work out. Where are we? Who has control? Who is speaking what language? “And what is the ‘truth’ here? Just as the truth is hard to come by, the prejudice hard to overcome in a real asylum claim, so it is during this unsettlingly entertaining night at the theatre.

“I’m no stranger to creating these kind of nights. I’ve co-created several unsettlingly entertaining shows under the guise of my cheeky, provocative company Made In China. But this is my first London run as a solo playwright.

The Claim (Image: Paul Samuel White)
The Claim (Image: Paul Samuel White)

Shoreditch Town Hall is a great place to show what I can do on my own but also to remind me I’ve in no way actually done it on my own! It was at Shoreditch, during early workshops in 2015, that we we really began (at Mark’s astute insistence) to bring people we met through research into the rehearsal room. This became habit, based on a philosophy we were introduced to: ‘nothing about us without us’.

“Many of the people from those early stages are still involved, with a range of activities happening before and after the play each night. Add that to an electric design and a brilliant cast who look sure for stardom very soon (!) and bringing all the elements together, back where it all started, is fantastic.

“It does feel like something special, involving a huge range of people from all walks of life, is happening here.”

Tim Cowbury’s The Claim runs at Shoreditch Town Hall from 16 to 26 January, and continues on a UK tour until 2 February.