Originally written for Exeunt Magazine. Photo by Rob O’Kelly.
Centred on verbatim interviews, The Scar Test by Hannah Khalil is a sensitive yet coruscating look at the experiences of women detained in Yarlswood Immigration Removal Centre. The title refers to the medical examinations migrants undergo as a way of ‘corroborating past ill-treatment’ in asylum claims. However, as a solicitor character later says, ‘It is virtually never the case that medical evidence can prove conclusively whether or not someone was tortured’.
In The Scar Test, it is not just the marks of the past that the women bear. Their present conditions of detention are also inscribed upon their bodies: stopped periods, stomach cramps, constipation, insomnia. What is so good about The Scar Test is that, whist cataloguing the daily humiliations and indignities of life in a migrant detention centre, it avoids further sensationalising these women or put their bodies on display.
Lights up. An actor, her back to the audience, is trying to take off an extremely large jumper. Her arms are in the garment’s torso; her head cannot be seen. She wriggles and struggles. The other actors, wearing the same oversized grey jumpers, join her in a line, copying her movements. It becomes a dance, almost fun, but accompanied by the rhythmic ‘ooh’s and ‘ah’s of frustration or pain. The significance of the jumper only becomes apparent much later in the piece. It is a way of changing clothes in relative privacy beneath the ever-watchful gaze of the four CCTV cameras positioned in each corner of the stage.
Sara Joyce’s production continuously plays with the dynamics of covering and uncovering. Strong Lady (Lucy Sheen) is told to change clothes in front of a guard; two guards conduct a ‘spot-check’ of a woman’s room, reading her diary and laughing at her sanitary towels, while she waits. Tired Lady, in a compelling performance by Rebecca Omogbehin, shows her scar to the doctor with her back to the audience. When she tells her story to a solicitor, the horror of it is conveyed through sound design rather than words. We never know precisely what happened, but it has left her traumatised and ashamed of her body. Perhaps the hardest thing as an audience member is the awareness that Tired Lady’s scar may not be considered enough evidence to grant her asylum in the UK.
The Scar Test is truly an ensemble piece, and the range and versatility of the all-female cast is astounding. Particularly memorable performances and characters (in addition those already mentioned) include Janet Etuk as the British-born child of illegal immigrants, threatened with deportation to a country she’s never been to; Shazia Nicholls as the overwhelmed lawyer, and Nadia Nadif when she ends up counselling a ‘befriender’ who is supposed to be there for her. Having the same actors play the Yarlswood security officers and the women detained there prevents a dichotomy existing between the two groups that might otherwise be oversimplified. Indeed, the first monologue of the play is given to a ‘security professional’, asked in a nightclub about how she got her scar.
Rather than offering a conventional narrative, The Scar Test is structured as a series of snapshots of life in Yarlswood. Sometimes characters recur in several scenes and a small arc is allowed to develop. However, many characters simply disappear and all their stories are left unresolved – a deliberate dramatic choice, no doubt, to convey the sense of uncertainty, but I found it frustrating. I wanted to find out what would happen to these women and others like them. Yet my reaction suggests that the play has done its job. The Scar Test is political theatre at its best, instilling a sense of care and responsibility in its audience.
The Scar Test is on until 22 July 2017 at the Soho Theatre. Click here for more details.