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Tim Cowbury (c) Richard Davenport

An interview with writer Tim Cowbury

20 December 2017 Katie Da Cunha Lewin

Tim Cowbury is a playwright and writer based in London. Having set up his theatrical company Made in China in 2009, along with partner and collaborater Jess Latowicki, he has now written his first solo production called ‘The Claim.’ This inventive piece of theatre explores the complexities and absurdities of the asylum process in the UK.

London Calling: Hi Tim, thanks for talking to London Calling. Do you want to tell us about your show ‘The Claim’?
 
Tim Cowbury: It’s a play I’ve developing with the director Mark Maughan, for around 3 years. So it’s been a long, slow, detailed, inclusive process, because we’ve been working with refugees, migrants, people who have been through what we are writing about, and we did this throughout the creative process. The play forensically examines but also abstracts the experience of an asylum seeker and their asylum claim; it goes through every key step of their interaction with the home office system and explores how absurd that system is. The protagonist is called Serge, and then there are two other characters who represent the system, called A and B.
 
LC: How did the idea for the play come about?
 
TC: It was a combination of Mark wanting to make a piece about migration, and my interest in language and power and interpreting specifically. I was watching someone speak at a conference and watching the simultaneous translation, and it struck me as really interesting. You have these two voices at once, trying to say exactly what the first voice is saying. But of course, it’s not exact; in the translation you inevitably change what’s been said slightly. So I was interested in thinking about what happens when a story starts as one thing and is morphed and mangled into something else by a system that will inevitably do that. This has informed the content and form of the play, so without giving away too much, you have different characters speaking different languages, though you wouldn’t realise that at first because they sound like they are speaking English. Because our research shows that that’s what happens in the asylum interview, the person will be instructed to speak through an interpreter, whilst looking at the interviewer, imagining that the interpreter isn’t there. It is a really traumatic experience that someone has to retell in order to save their life. It’s an incredibly high-stake situation.
 

Image credit: The Claim, UK Tour. Ncuti Gatwa courtesy of Paul Samuel White

LC: You did a lot of research for the show – what kinds of things did you do?
 
TC: Early on, we went to an immigration tribunal; any member of the public can go along. They happen every day at Hatton Cross, near Heathrow, where there is one of the many immigration detention centres we have in this country. In one tribunal we saw, we realised that the refugee was still in the detention centre and was being asked to Skype in to his own tribunal to decide whether he’d be set free. So he just sat there whilst all these British people decided if he’d be allowed to have his life in the UK; that was really sad and angering. We also went and met a lot of refugees who had been all the way through the system, as well as everyone we possibly could who had knowledge about this process, like Detention Action and Freedom from Torture. A lot of these were groups campaigning for refugee rights.
 
LC: How did this affect the way that you thought of the refugee process?
 
TC: I was told by someone that if I wanted to understand the refugee process I should read ‘The Trial’ by Kafka; you hear that and you think it couldn’t possibly be like that, but it really is, that’s the simplest way of understanding it. The title of this play references that book. I found myself confronted in a way that I still don’t know how to answer. We all have our own set of expectations and prejudice about what refugees are like and what kind of stories they have. Seeing someone as a victim is just as bad as seeing someone as a villain. I think ultimately I ended up writing something that explores what happens when we want someone to fit into our preconceived ideas.
 
LC: What kinds of reactions do you want to provoke in your audiences?
 
TC: Certainly our intention is to provoke and ask difficult questions rather than to provide answers. We wanted to unsettle people but also make them laugh at the same moment where they feel they shouldn’t, perhaps out of recognition of the British characters, in order to make them question the laughter, asking how am I implicated? And how am I implicated just by being an audience member? We are sitting there as an audience, we want to hear an exciting story from our protagonist. I wanted to use these ideas to implicate the audience, not as a finger-pointing, but in order to confront who we are as a nation. We’ve got issues we need to work through. It wouldn’t be useful if we were simply trying to make people feel sympathy or empathy with refugees, that obviously comes from watching a likeable character being put through this, but there have been other plays and stories that have covered that.
 
LC: Have you always been interested in writing?
 
TC: I’ve been working as a professional writer for a few years. I started out wanting to be a playwright when I left University about 10 years ago. I went and did a Masters in writing for performance and as I did that I met people who were doing theatrically interesting work. I started a company called Made in China along with Jess Latowicki, made several shows and toured the UK and abroad as well as some London runs. I did that whilst still wanting to write a play. This is technically my first play, though I’ve done a lot collaboratively. I’m interested in exploring what can theatre do that no other script form can.
 
LC: You hand out an information sheet at the end of The Claim – why did you feel this was important?
 
TC: It was the desire to bridge the gap between what happens in this enclosed space of the theatre and what happens out there in the real world.  You are likely to be unsettled, or angry and have questions so we wanted to provide some things to do afterwards. So it means that you don’t go and have a drink after and think you had a lovely evening at the theatre but you can take this towards some social action. Because however political theatre is if it doesn’t translate to wider society than you have to ask questions about whether or not it truly is political.
 
The Claim is at Shoreditch Town Hall from 16 – 26 January 2018. Tickets £12.50
 
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