Theatre Review: Tanja

Photo credit: York Theatre Royal

The name Tanja is the pseudonym used by the British Press to name the women seeking asylum and whom are detained in detention centres, such as the infamous Yarl’s Wood. Tanja is led by Emily Ntshangase-Wood an ex Yarl’s Wood detainee, whose personal story of being an asylum seeker carries the narrative of the production.

At its core Tanja is a plea for recognition and solidarity. It asks the audience to extend the hand of friendship and to empathise with the pain and plight of those being detained. It further explores the concept of friendship even amongst hardship. There is a beautiful moment where Emily and a fellow detainee Ivanna (depicted by the show’s writer Rosie MacPherson) are unified through song. The melody evokes the feelings of pain and sorrow, whilst simultaneously being heartfelt and showing the importance of human connection and tenacity.

The production depicts the events as a distorted fairytale. It explores the concept of Tanja arriving in the UK, having escaped both psychological and physical pain, only then to be detained, consequently rendering her a life a means of survival rather than living. ‘Even princesses must learn that things are not as they seem’ Emily states. Yet who are these ‘princesses’ she refers to I can’t help but wonder? Is it the asylum seekers that have yearned for escape, to find it in Britain only to be detained? Or is it wider British society sitting from places of comfort and failing to recognise the plight of others? Tanja evokes such questions in the audience. The poignancy and profoundness of its message, transcends Tanja beyond a mere piece of theatre.

The production aims to break down such misconceptions and show what Tanja is: Human.

Through no fault of their own, asylum seekers are detained indefinitely waiting for their application for refugee status to go through. Whilst they wait for news, detainees are isolated and there exists an extreme sense of misunderstanding. We see this though the distortion of Emily’s words. Speaking into a microphone eloquently and earnestly she expresses her desire to be a meaningful contributor to British society. In contrast, the screen behind shows her words being corrupted. Likening to the press’ coverage and depiction of asylum seekers as liars, addicts and solely wanting benefits. The profound disparity between the two forces the audience to recognise humanity. One can’t help but think this is how people like Tanja are depicted by the press; demonised and stripped of humanity. Consequently, the production aims to break down such misconceptions and show what Tanja is: Human.

As a piece of theatre itself, it isn’t groundbreaking. This being said, if you were to solely look at it as actors moving on stage you would miss both the point and the heart of the story. The autobiographical nature of the narrative and the company’s goal to spread understanding is what makes it as a piece of beauty. It is about pain and loss, about the fear of being forgotten and left behind. Yet whilst it is all of these things it is painfully optimistic, there is joy amidst the heartbreak and the promising possibility to create lasting change.

The production uses verbatim materials in the dialogue to strike home the relevancy of the content. “Can I talk please? I left everything to save my life. I am an Asylum Seeker… I am not a criminal”. The sense of urgency and desperation in which such lines are delivered entreats the audience to understand. This in conjunction with the fact that the audience are welcomed and thanked at the beginning and the end of the performance suggests that we are not merely spectators but active participants.

Tanja achieves what it sets out to do, which is to spread knowledge and understanding of those detained in centres such as Yarl’s Wood.

Tanja achieves what it sets out to do, which is to spread knowledge and understanding of those detained in centres such as Yarl’s Wood. It forces us to question the nature of detention centres.

It goes beyond theatre and implores social justice. Ultimately Tanja reflects what theatre has the power to be. Theatre at its heart is a powerful tool to catalyse social change and serves as an effective medium to spread ideas and to protest.

So take five minutes out of your day, and educate yourselves on individuals like Emily. On Tanja.