Recently there has been much said about the right to human mobility, with little of it in defence. As the global movement of people responds in quantity to mass suffering and destabilisation, the same forces are determining elections in the West, mostly through activating right-wing protectionist forces harnessing fear and hysteria (think Trump, Brexit, or the Nazi-founded FPA at Austrian presidential elections). Within this situation, second-generation immigrants suffer a particular type of identity crisis: able to fit in, but vulnerable at any time to sudden exclusion, their everyday experience of precarious identity can be suddenly ramped up to verbal or physical violence.
This makes the subject of Stephen Laughton’s Screens, which focuses on a family of second-generation immigrants, a pertinent one. After all, how is a country like the UK supposed to shoulder its humanitarian obligation of new arrivals, when it can’t even include previous ones?
Screens approaches the experience of second-generation immigrants as one of personal identity intruded upon by political circumstances from which it can never escape, telling us the story of a young Turkish Cypriot family which suddenly finds out it was Greek. The subsequent crisis threatens their sense of self, and leads to an act of tragic violence, as an attack carried out by 17-year-old Ayşe (Nadia Hynes) against 35-year old Jewish homosexual Ben (Paul Bloomfield), the new Grindr fancy of her brother Al (Declan Perring).
Its ‘kitchen sink drama for Gen Y’ feel is enhanced by the characters’ self-obsessed dialogue and sudden plot twists. Characters about-face on positions established just the previous line with almost Wildean candour, and the script moves at a pace which undermines itself almost before a reality can even been established, creating a momentous wave of drama that occasionally plonks down with a sudden thud upon a plot signpost. Whilst this generates a kind of power through sheer force of movement, it does make it very difficult to follow the more subtle details of character formation within the twisting network of red herrings – beyond a clever reference or nod-and-wink gag or a sharp quip.
As with much new writing, the direction (Cressida Brown) is very concerned with defined stagecraft, and the characters dart with fierce intent around the abstract minimalist set, perhaps attempting to extract an impression of clarity through cleanliness.
These are critical stories as Britain attempts to deal with a sudden rise of racial attacks and a pivot to the homogeneity of the Anglosphere. For them to be told with care, empathy and attentiveness is paramount – which makes their cursory treatment at the expense of speed and clarity here all the more frustrating. The cast do what they can with the drama-lite material they have available – in particular Hynes’ fun portrait is full of attitude and confused defiance, whilst Perring’s ‘gay Muslim’ is eerily transformative, generating a changeable performativity within a consistent trajectory.
It’s a difficult task for the actors – for all its breadth of contemporary references to political and identity struggle, the play continually asks us to believe that it was written on a crazy night last week. The references to Brexit and augmented reality game Pokémon GO don’t help this – but they’re not themselves a problem, more symbolic of one. When a character relates an impression of the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus that feels like it’s from Wiki, the audience may well wish they’d stayed at home and read that website – or indeed, lost themselves in the fantasy of dating apps. As a result, the weight of the human drama – or any political resonance – is relegated to a mere supporting role to immediacy, expediency, and a cornucopia of contemporary references to make Tarantino blush. The effect, though, is oddly dehumanising of its precarious subjects, and Screens traps itself in a self-defeating bind of earnestness and triviality from which, like its human subjects, it can never be free.
Screens will be playing at Theatre 503 until September 3.