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Theatre

‘The system isn’t an accident’: How a playwright is forcing us to ask questions about the hostile environment

Sami Ibrahim’s father was stateless until he was 40. Now Ibrahim wants audiences to confront the reality of citizenship

What would you go through for a piece of paper? And what does it mean to be a citizen – or not – of somewhere? With migration never far from the headlines, and a government intent on deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda, those questions inspired Sami Ibrahim to write A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain.

Ibrahim’s father, a Palestinian born in Lebanon, was stateless until he was 40, when he married a Brit – Ibrahim’s mother.

That background, coupled with Ibrahim watching the case in which Shamima Begum was  stripped of her British citizenship, planted a seed.

“I was interested in that question of citizenship, what it means to be a citizen of a country. It’s something I felt isn’t interrogated very often,” Ibrahim tells the Big Issue.

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Told as a fable of an immigrant mother and daughter battling to stay in the country, A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain charts the work mum Elif must do to survive, the faceless bureaucracy they come up against, and the stories passed from generation to generation. In other words, a life lived against a hostile environment.

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After a run at the Edinburgh fringe, A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain is the first play at the Gate Theatre, which has moved from Notting Hill to a new home in Camden.

Played out with a three-person cast, it’s hard to talk about an hour-long play without giving the game away.

It’s resonant and relevant – but not autobiographical. You see Elif work, trapped in a job for a boss who insists they’re “taking a risk” employing someone without the correct papers, hoping it might lead to a better future. Meanwhile daughter Lily doesn’t quite see the sacrifices her mum has made – or what’s at stake if it all goes wrong.

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“The system isn’t an accident. It’s there as a result of active decisions and choices made by many people over many years,” he says.

What does Ibrahim want audiences to leave the theatre thinking? “I don’t feel like there’s anything set and clear. It’s clear the play’s going: ‘Oh we have a messed up immigration system’. But I sort of take that for granted – that is the state of our immigration system,” he says.

“I think I’d like the audience to be thinking about the questions that come from that. What are the effects of that system on people? Different worldviews clashing – the value of citizenship, the value of migration, and how different generations will see it in different ways”

Since Ibrahim began work on the play last year, its themes haven’t been far from the headlines. The play began its run on the evening Suella Braverman was fired as home secretary. In her short tenure, she spoke of her “dream” of a deportation flight to Rwanda leave by Christmas. It took a campaign for the government to stop charging £1,012 to children applying for citizenship.

“Conversations about immigration keep emerging in increasingly unhealthy ways,” says Ibrahim.

“We like the idea that there can be justice for everyone, and that we can have an equitable society. There’s something in the play that’s cynical, and I think is trying to confront the reality of saying ‘for me to be safe you have to be in danger, for me to benefit you have to be disadvantaged’.”

“Society is sometimes a bit of a zero-sum game, and it’s trying to prod that a little bit.”

A Sudden Violent Burst of Rain is at the Gate Theatre until November 5.

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