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'Kin' review – this harrowing physical telling of refugee stories couldn't be more timely

Read our three-star review of Amit Lahav and Gecko's Kin, now in performances at the National Theatre to 27 January.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Kin is a personal project with universal resonance, inspired by the story of Gecko Artistic Director Amit Lahav’s grandmother Leah and her family who, in 1932, fled Yemen for Palestine in order to escape persecution.

The cast of ten ‘Devising Performers’ (including Lahav himself) tell stories of harrowing refugee experiences through movement, mime, and dance, with snatches of un-subtitled dialogue spoken in their mother tongues.

The choreography, devised by the company, is outstandingly physical with a dreamlike quality that permeates throughout and makes use of the Lyttelton Theatre’s revolve. However, there is the possibility that such intricacy risks making the way in which a refugee’s life is constantly in flux look too graceful, and it isn’t always possible to follow all the details.

Chris Swain’s lighting creates many cinematic effects (though there are moments when the stage is too dark to clearly see what is happening) and Rhys Jarman’s set and costume design locate the action in a space that’s both timeless and has a feel of the early 20th century – the time of Jewish pogroms immortalised in popular culture in Fiddler on the Roof.

At the centre of the piece are two groups with four members; one appears to be a nuclear family of a mother, father, son, and daughter. Towards the beginning, there’s a palpable sense of joy when the family is reunited and settles into a domestic routine, but they’re soon forced to flee again.

The second group comprises three men and one woman who (in my interpretation) likely came together as strangers with disparate backgrounds and no prior claim to personal loyalty, but have become a tight-knit unit via their shared experiences and traumas.

Throughout, there is a painful sense of refugees being treated like criminals. In one sequence, our motley crew only stand a chance of getting through if they “whiten up” and assimilate by donning neckties and flat caps in order to look more “respectable” (thereby being forced to abandon their own culture). A white, blonde couple in navy-blue suits breeze through the gates while they are turned away on sight, with members beaten and possibly even shot.

Equally shocking is when the mother of the family offers food to the guards, either as a bribe or a gesture of goodwill (more likely the latter), and they spit in the bag and hand it back to her with a smirk.

In the final sequence, the cast assemble in the sea wearing life jackets that failed to save them, representing those who didn’t make it. The piece certainly couldn’t be more timely in light of what is currently happening in Palestine and when there are reports about drownings in the English Channel on an all-too-regular basis, exacerbated by the Government’s years of hostile rhetoric towards refugees (there’s a blonde bouffant Boris wig at one point).

In the final moments, the cast step forward and introduce themselves briefly in English. Every story must have so many layers and be worthy of a show of its own.

Kin is at the National Theatre through 27 January.

Photo credit: Kin (Photo by Mark Sepple)

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