Salt (4 stars) | Flight (3 stars) | The Sleeper (2 stars)

Matt Trueman reviews Salt (4 stars) | Flight (3 stars) | The Sleeper (2 stars)

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Published 06 Aug 2017

Two years ago, weighed down by a world that beats down on black bodies, Selina Thompson stepped onto a cargo ship. She planned to trace the triangle of the transatlantic slave trade: Europe to Africa to the Caribbean and back. It would be the first time she’d left Britain as an adult; a journey that stretches self-discovery to the max.

Salt is an intensely personal show; its heaviness offset with a light touch. Between time at sea with a racist, misogynist Italian seacaptain (“the master”), a week out of sorts in Elmina, Ghana and a lush stint in Kingston, Jamaica, Thompson tries to determine her place in the world as a black British woman, as an adopted child and as an ancestor of slaves. The sense is of someone permanently other: uncomfortable with “wealthy, wealthy Europe”, built out of blood money, but fundamentally removed from her ancestral roots. Does belonging to a diaspara mean belonging to nowhere? She carries her close family with her: grief for her late grandmother; her father’s cheery, sceptical phone calls.

Throughout, Thompson slams a sledgehammer into a slab of salt. The action—heavygoing, hard work—draws a line between her body and those before it. The salt splits into shards; a mark of how long it takes to break down old structures and crystallised attitudes. As a white man, watching, it’s startling to be reminded how much racism—overt or underhand, micro and macro—Thompson and others endure day-to-day; how draining it must be to bear up against that: the looks, the asides, the silences, the weight of history. It’s a work of its own.

That’s testimony to Thompson’s scrupulous honesty. She demands so much of herself, such precision and exactitude, that it’s incumbent on us to listen in kind. Salt never parrots inherited ideas, but weaves itself into a web of cultural thinking and references, and if the show can only scratch the surface of such a huge undertaking, so vast a subject, it’s still a start. I’d like to read the full book, but in a Fringe where so much feels throwaway—one hour of slightness and style—Salt leaves a real residue.

The journey in Flight has become all too familiar. Ayran and Kabir, two brothers, 15 and 8, set off from Afghanistan after their parents’ death. They’re aiming for London via Tehran, Istanbul, Athens, Rome and Paris; on foot, by boat and in the back of various lorries. We know these images and we know this story.

Glasgow’s Vox Motus make us lean in and look closely. Their International Festival offering turns Caroline Brothers’ novel Hinterland, written three years before the refugee crisis really set in, into a moving model. We sit in a booth, headphones on, as a series of dioramas pass in front of us. A family of figurines sit at their dining table. Two tiny boys start a hike over the hills. A rubber dinghy packed with silhouettes bends on a breaking wave. The sound of the sea swims in our ears. Sometimes the road stretches out in a long panorama; sometimes the world closes in like the back of a truck; sometimes the boys escape into frosted glass dreams.

The effect is like a 3D graphic novel – a clever marriage of story and form. It’s told moment by moment, and a story of flight seems to come to a standstill. We jump frame to frame, and we watch on the go, and as the story spins, it feels, for all the world, like we’re the ones moving. It’s disorientating (isn’t the world?), but doubly so when the story seems to come full circle. Is this dinner table the same as the first? Have the boys been here before? This bed? This truck? Life on the road is a life on repeat: always travelling, getting nowhere.

It can’t fully overcome over-familiarity, and after a while, you sit back and settle in. The lack of human presence, eye contact perhaps, lets us off the hook, and the craftwork tends to cutesify something horribly real. Flight’s almost a monument to those on the move.

Henry C. Krempels travelled part of that journey. Two years ago, he wrote a piece for Vice about a night aboard the "train of second chances” from Venice to Paris; an artery for refugees pushing into mainland Europe. Returning to his bunk, he found a young Syrian woman inside. For a second, they saw each other – then she bolted.

The Sleeper abstracts that experience, turning it over and over. Krempels becomes Karina, a young British woman. Ameena, an Arab-speaker, is her opposite. The French train steward, George, mediates as the encounter glitches and repeats. Sometimes Karina demands an upgrade, sometimes she asks for Ameena’s ejection. She tries to translate or she hands over her ticket.

Though nowhere near strict enough with either form or dialogue, it’s a neat distillation of the refugee crisis. A privileged woman finds her rightful place occupied. Should she share the space or stake her claim to it? The Sleeper’s smart enough to rotate the perspective. Aya Daghem’s Ameena is anxious, but independent. She’s made it this far and might need no help. Joshua Jacobs’ George, meanwhile, is more than a mere medium. He’s torn between his job and his humanity, caught between privilege and privation.