Review: ‘Where to belong’ belongs at the Playhouse

Entertainment / Sun 12th Sep 2021 at 08:24am

‘Where to belong’ – Harlow Playhouse, September 2021 – a performance review by Ian Beckett.

IN this twilight zone of uncertainty between the onslaught of Covid 19 and what we hope will be the begin of, not a return to a mythical “normality” but progress towards something much better, arriving at Harlow Playhouse on a Thursday evening to find the bar full of people collecting refreshments before the start of the 7.30pm show in the main auditorium was a welcome sight.

It was also a pleasure to see some of us left in the bar as the show in the main house began, waiting to see one of the Playhouse’s latest “Pay What You Can” offerings in the Studio Theatre. In the main house, local theatregoers were enjoying “The Bohemians” – a Queen tribute act, and the first two songs that I could hear being pumped out – “One Vision” and “A Kind of Magic” allowed me to reflect upon what I might be in store for upstairs.

From what I had read from the publicity, I was certain that ‘Where to belong’ was going to offer up far more than just one vision, rather an array of perspectives that would provoke and inspire new ones. I was not wrong, and the evening provided more than one or two moments of magic!

‘Where to Belong’ is the autobiographical story of performance-artist Victor Esses’ journey to find home. Esses, who currently lives in London, is Jewish-Lebanese, Brazilian, and gay and the show offers up an exploration of how to find your place in a complex world of identities, where it is not always easy to accept who you are, let alone be accepted by others.

A blank canvas greeted the audience, with carefully placed, literal items of objet d’art, that would subtly bring life and meaning to Esses’ journey: a chair which doubled evocatively as a suitcase, a simple green rug that could have been at home in the many homes we would visit or discarded in the streets of uncertainty in a turbulent world.

Before the show began proper Victor appeared and began to humbly “borrow” members of the audience to take them backstage. The precise purpose was kept hidden although I did hear him say “I’d like to ask you a question”. This was the beginning of direct and indirect interaction with an attentive and appreciative audience, that would follow.

“How are you feeling?” Victor asks the audience and perhaps unsurprisingly there is a commonality in the feeling states of both audience and artiste – calm, happy, tired, excited. Rooting ourselves in how we are feeling proves to be a good place to start this theatrical exploration of what home actually is? A physical place? The people we are with? Whether we are welcomed or accepted?

How we feel and whether we feel we belong where we are? Esses is clear that this applies very much to us internally as well as in our emotional relations to others and where we find ourselves in our communities.

On stage, balloons rise from cardboard boxes creating a party atmosphere of teenage angst only to be burst later by the bullets of civil unrest that forced Victor’s mother to flee from Lebanon in the 1970’s. Nearly 50 years later we realise that Victor’s parents phobic attitudes, which apply to race as well as sexuality, are very much products of their lives, and rather than dismiss them, he does, and we should, work to understand them, and if possible, with humility, empathise with them, and perhaps, in time, transform them. 

As this extraordinary piece of performance art progresses towards an epilogue of solidarity with audience members accepting Victor’s invitation to “stand by me”, he plays back the pre-show recordings of the audience members explaining what evokes a sense of belonging in them. Warmth, love, laughter, music, and memories echo the essence of Esses own story that we have just witnessed and participated in, and pointedly Victor asks us three questions: 

If you had to leave your present country for a place of safety, where would you choose to go? 

Which two people would you take with you? 

What three things would you take with you? 

Perhaps you might like to ask yourself those questions and reflect upon how your answers illuminate your current sense of belonging and what is important to you.

‘Where to belong’ cries out a message that Playhouse Artistic Director Rory Davies, has championed and will continue to champion. We are all different and difference is welcome. We are people who want and need to belong, and we should never need to ask permission for that. That’s what being welcome and belonging means at Harlow Playhouse.

I will leave the last words with another member of the audience who made a point of coming over to Rory after the show, to thank him. Annalise Taylor, a Harlow resident, originally from New Zealand, said “I booked tickets for ‘Where to Belong’ hoping to be surprised and entertained and to support the Playhouse as I’m keen to see interesting theatre locally.

The performance was thought provoking and has already prompted multiple conversations on the concept of belonging. It was relatable because we all want to feel that we belong, whether that be to a place, a community of people or a family. It seems to me that there’s not much point going to the theatre if you know exactly what you’re going to get – I found ‘Where to Belong’ engaging because it used a range of approaches to explore its theme – storytelling, multimedia, song and just enough audience participation to draw us in without making us uncomfortable.’ 

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