You have to get up early to see Victor Esses’ Where to Belong, playing each morning at 10am in Summerhall, but if you do, you’re in for an unexpected treat. Esses has produced a moving play for those who have “ever struggled for a sense of belonging”. It’s funny and heart-warming and quintessentially Fringe.
Esses is Jewish, Lebanese-Brazilian and gay. In 1975 his mother fled Lebanon as a refugee of the Civil War. More than 40 years later, Esses returns to his mother’s birth place. Another year later, just as Brazil elects a far-right president, he travels from London to his native São Paulo with his partner.
Esses makes great use of a sophisticated sound design, as well as from several monitors, a laptop, a radio and audio-visual projections. There is a lovely moment where we witness his skype conversation with his mother, as he walks her around the apartment she deserted when she was 15 years old. She squeals with delight and Esses is as happy as she is. There are serious issues discussed here. How do we define belonging? Is it a person? Or a place or an object? Themes of homophobia, anti-Semitism, identity and nationality ripple below the surface, but none of this feels hard-going. The performer’s gentle and amiable nature draws us in, placing us at the centre of this highly personal, very emotional journey.
Throughout the experience there are several moments that remind us what festivals like Edinburgh Fringe are all about. Esses asks us where we would flee to and what we would bring if we had to leave our home suddenly. We are asked to write it down. The man beside me would flee to Sheffield with pants and a toothbrush. Very wise. Another woman would dash to the Côte d’Azur with her grandmother’s wedding gloves, making my crude journey to the West of Ireland with money and a phone seem boring. He asks us what two people we’d bring. There are sniffles in the crowd.
In another moment, he confesses to us that he really is a bad Brazilian; he doesn’t know how to Samba. Luckily, two members of our audience do, and so they teach him, along with the rest of the audience, brought to their shuffling feet. At the end of the play, Esses, who has asked for a hug a few times before, is finally joined on stage by three or four of us. They embrace in a simple but cathartic tableau.
Esses’ achievement is how he makes what might at first seem a remote or unfamiliar experience immediately accessible. We are involved, we’ve actually helped him to tell his own story. With calmness and certainty, the boundaries between audience and performer dissolve. Get up early, grab a coffee and go.
Where to Belong is playing Summerhall until 25 August as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. For more information and tickets, see the Edinburgh Fringe website.