Fig rolls; Bjork on a jumpy record player; Mum dressing me in corduroy dungarees. This is what I leave Where to Belong thinking about. As someone who has lived the majority of her life in the same comfortable terrace house, I did not expect to relate so strongly to Victor Esses’s tale of nomadic life, trapped between cultures, countries, and identities. However, Where to Belong is not about place, but security, wherever one might find it.
Esses does not seek to revolutionise theatre in the way small, experimental productions so often do; instead, he quietly adapts the medium to his own ends, using a simple set with minimal props and no flashy effects. A darkened room is set out with a microphone, a cheap rug, a few cardboard boxes, and four rows of chairs for the audience. Immediately, Esses breaks the performer-audience divide, engaging us in thoughtful conversation before embarking on a beautiful story that spans continents and generations. As a Jewish-Lebanese, Brazilian, British, possibly white, ‘not black’, ‘fat’, ‘sexual’, ‘gay’, ‘able’ man, Esses stars in his own story set against a family history of persecution and war.
Where to Belong’s beauty lies in its honesty. At no point is Esses unwilling to expose himself; from singing Sabah’s Allo Beirut with heartfelt conviction to struggling to learn a new samba step (part of his ongoing efforts to assert his Brazilian heritage) Esses performs with admirable bravery. It is bravery I could not match. When Esses asks us to share where we would go if forced to leave ‘home’, which two people we would take, what three things we would bring, I avoid his gaze. In the intimate setting Esses has established, the thought of revealing so much, answers laden with history, obligation, and guilt is unbearable. A far cry from idle games of would-you-rather, Esses demands we confront the true depth of these questions. Despite this, Where to Belong never feels heavy; it is a show brimming with subtle humour, a product of Esses’s warmth as a writer and performer.
If I were to be really picky, I would say Where to Belong is a little too tidy. In ‘the ending, the epilogue, or whatever you want to call it’ Esses circles back to the beginning (‘…the prologue, or whatever you want to call it’) in a way that feels clumsy in its neatness. If all is not solved, it is at least resolved. This is a thing I find hard to reconcile as the story is most certainly not finished. Esses, after all, will continue to exist once the theatre is empty; Where to Belong is not fiction (except in the way that all stories inevitably are) and I doubt Esses’s life will tie itself in the bow he presents us with at the end of his show. Nevertheless, as a performance about finding security in turbulence, Where to Belong’s romanticism can perhaps be excused. Despite his references to war, violence and rejection, Esses is unerringly optimistic, emphasising humanity’s ability to care and protect in the face of whatever disasters lie ahead of us.
Esses asks less ‘where to belong’ and more ‘how to belong’. The answer he arrives at is no less true for its predictability: love, family, acceptance. At the end of the show, Esses selects only three audience members to physically join him on stage in a gesture of solidarity, but we were all standing with him. In under an hour, Esses constructs a nest, a true home in this theatre full of disparate people, that I do not want to leave.
Where to Belong played on 7 September. For more information and tickets see The Oxford Playhouse Website.