Wordpretzels, this blog is all about the ‘immersive theatre experience’ Bordergame, so may contain some spoilers for those of you who may feel like taking part. However, it would be hard to spoil the performance, since the outcome is completely different for every audience member. Stay with me on this…
Bordergame comes from the minds of two rather weird geniuses, John Norton and Matthew Wright, directed by John Norton. This is the basic premise: Wales is now an independent state, The Autonomous Republic of Cymru; in the NewK, there’s a TB epidemic and people are dropping like flies. It’s your mission to make it across the border and be accepted as a bona fide citizen of ARC; What’s there to stop you? The border guards of the Border Agency of the Autonomous Republic of Cymru (BAARC), led by the rather sinister figure of Alun Trevor. What’s more, B.A.A.R.C. is ably assisted by online players who can watch the action on covert cctv cameras, all registered members of the Active Citizen Programme (ACP). They have the power to watch you participate and decide whether you should be allowed citizenship or be deported. Still with me?
The night didn’t start well. Lady Barton St Mary and I missed our connecting train to Bristol Temple Meads (the gateway for illegal entry into ARC). To make matters worse, Miss Katherine, travelling from Cardiff, had our tickets. Or rather had forgotten them and had returned to her flat to retrieve them, thus making her impossibly late. Ironically, she was having a nightmare trip out of Wales.
Therefore, we arrived in a rather dark and stressful mood as the rain lashed down on a damp November evening.
No matter, we managed to rendezvous with our contact, open a safety deposit box and collect our cash and a letter with instructions.
I followed the map, walking briskly in torrential rain, the paper wilting and getting softer in my cold hands. I had to find Riverside Road and meet my contact. Lady Barton St Mary struggled to keep up, skittering across the cobbles in her heels. I spotted a figure silhouetted under a streetlight. I approached and gave him the coded message. He stared at me for a moment. His black skin glistened as droplets of water ran down his cheeks.
“Stand over there,” he said brusquely in his thick African accent, pointing to the corner of a building. Lady BSM approached him and tried the same line. He fixed her with a steady gaze and snatched the map from her hands.
“What are you doing here!” he demanded, “can’t you see you should be under the bridge up there?”
Poor Lady BSM looked at him imploringly. She’d already had a run in with the sat nav in the car, which had steadfastly refused to find a suitable car park, so she looked a little defeated.
“Go!” shouted my guide, “and run! You’re going to be late!”
I watched Lady BSM disappear into the murk, unaware that I had her rail ticket in my pocket. I was joined by another migrant, who introduced herself as Adalyne. Later on standing on Platform 4, I found out that she was from Brisbane, Australia.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I asked her as the rain did its best to hammer through the roof.
Our guide approached, standing very close to us both. He looked from one of us to the other.
“When is The Queen’s birthday?” he demanded of Adalyne. She giggled.
“Don’t laugh!” he shouted angrily, “Dis is no laughing matter! You will be asked dese things by the border guards! 21st April 1926! Follow me!” he hissed, turning on his heel and heading up the hill back to the station, splashing through the puddles.
As we reached the archway leading into the back of the station, he bustled us into a corner and produced a bag. He produced two identity cards with our images on and demanded $500 each from the stash we’d collected from the safety deposit boxes. Meekly, we handed it over.
He then explained that people were dropping like flies from TB in the NewK and we needed proof that we were healthy. For $50 each, he would give us four sets of X Rays showing that we were. Adalyn tried negotiating.
“These aren’t very good X rays,” she said, “I know, I’m a nurse!”
Wrong move. Our African liaison gave her his best stare.
“When was the NHS founded?” he enquired.
“1967?” she offered hopefully. He stared at me, lifting his chin for a response.
“1948,” I said, confident in my knowledge.
“1948,” he confirmed.
I handed over $100, trusting Adalyne to pay me later.
Transactions over, we were taken around the corner and briskly led by another diminutive figure to the back of a yellow transit van and bundled in.
“Wait for Snakehead,” we were told, “he’s going to get you across.”
It was dark, but we could make out three shadowy figures; two females and another person under a blanket, who said his name was Odey. We introduced ourselves, although by now I wasn’t concentrating and can’t remember their names. One of the ladies tried to find out where Odey came from.
“Syria,” he said, coughing loudly.
“Sorry,” he said softly, “I think I have TB.”
“Move up, move up!” said Adalyne in her thick Australian accent, her bony hip pushing me towards the back of the van, away from the sickly Odey. We fell silent as the back doors opened and a large figure climbed in and slammed them shut behind him. He wore fatigues and a flat cap, eerily lit by a bright torchlight he held in his left hand. He remained silent for a few seconds.
“Where’s yer ID?” he demanded, a strong, aggressive London accent. We held our IDs aloft. He snatched one from the girl opposite.
“This is an old card,” he growled, “you’re travelling as a British citizen. When were you born?” he asked her. Fortunately, she’d memorised her given birthdate. He took another.
“Where are you from?” he said in a low tone.
“Bury,” the next girl stuttered nervously. She’d also followed instructions and memorised the card.
“Where’s Bury?” he asked. Silence.
“Fucking hell. You don’t sound like you’re from Bury. You lot have got to liven up or you’re fucked,” he spat, producing some yellow coloured booklets.
“These,” he explained, “are your ID papers with immunisation information. They cost $300. Each. Hand it over.”
I watched carefully as he snatched the money from my group’s hands and threw the booklets at them.
“If you have a mobile phone, turn it off,” he rasped. “Use these,” he said handing out old fashioned models. “You’ll be sent messages and be called with instructions.”
He then handed out green beany hats with a daffodil motif.
“Wear these. That way you can identify other migrants,” he explained.
He pointed at Adalyn and me.
“Your train leaves at 20:54. Platform 11. Now fuck off,” he muttered, opening the transit doors and spilling us out into the bright lights of the station.
“Here’s your fifty,” said Adalyne, handing over a crisp note.
“Thanks,” I said, “at least I’ve come out on top once tonight. I stiffed Snakehead for a couple of hundred,” I laughed. She smiled and shook her head.
“Bloody risky,” she opined.
We made it onto the train and split up as instructed. I found a seat by the door , just outside the carriage. By this time I’d found Lady BSM and given her the rail ticket.
It didn’t take long before I felt the presence of somebody standing next to me; a young woman, wearing a luminous yellow jacket, the letters B.A.A.R.C. emblazoned on the back. I kept my head down. My phone buzzed with messages, warning of other migrants who were spies, calls helping me with my Bury accent.
I continued to move about the train, avoiding the guard. At last, I received a text congratulating me on crossing the border. Yes! I’d made it!
Then one message informing me that Interpol had reported my ID as false, recommending I claim political asylum when confronted by the authorities and to await a call with my asylum story. The call, when it came, was muffled and indecipherable. Oh dear.
We arrived in Newport and made our way to the designated exit, staying close together as advised. As we left the station, we were met by uniformed figures – the B.A.A.R.C. enforcement officers, who lined us up and one by one, checked our documents and asked questions:
Where was the queen born? Where does a cockney come from? When is mothers’ day?
One by one, migrants were allowed to pass, or told to stand to one side.
“What happens on St Valentine’s Day?” asked the tall imposing border guard.
“Oh, you give gifts and flowers to your wife or girlfriend. Or both,” I grinned, hearing the chuckling behind me. Authority always makes me do this, try and make fun. The guard smiled and looked at his diminutive female companion, before turning once more to me.
“What do you think of St Dwynwen, then, the Welsh patron saint of lovers? You heard of St Dwynwen?”
“Of course I’ve heard of him,” I replied confidently.
“She,” said the female officer, a jubilant look in her eyes, “St Dwynwen’s a woman.”
I looked back at the huge security man.
His smile had disappeared and he gazed over my shoulder under the slashed peak of his hat, no longer interested in my presence.
“Stand over there.”
I did as I was told.
Lady BSM answered a couple of tricky questions and made it through. I was on my own.
The next I knew I was in a van and being driven around the streets of Newport. We arrived in a dark, dingy car park, the tarmac iridescent with the earlier rain and were led, single file, into a brightly lit office; B.A.A.R.C.’s interrogation centre.
We sat in plastic chairs as migrants were led into an office to be questioned. However, three of us were taken upstairs, where we had to read words from a screen into a tape recorder to ascertain whether our accent betrayed the information on our ID cards. It’s hard to keep up a Bury accent for long. Unless you’re from Bury.
Then back downstairs for more questioning. I desperately tried to communicate with my fellow migrants to get an asylum story, without luck. Like the others on the train who I tried unsuccessfully to buy things from, they thought I was a tricky plant. Suspicion and paranoia play a large part in the illegal immigration game, counteracting that aforementioned camaraderie. Eventually, the large border guard appeared again and ordered us downstairs and out into the open, where another minibus waited for us. Another trip across town, another line up against the wall. The guard pointed at a fire door.
“Knock on the door. This is a safe house. You will find your loved ones inside. Thank you for playing Bordergames,” he announced with a kindly smile.
I was reunited with Miss Katherine and Lady BSM.
The safe house looked authentic. The asylum seekers inside certainly were. Niki, from Eritrea, had paid 2 500 euros to get from Greece to the UK. Odey was into his third year of a mechanical engineering degree in Syria when the shit hit the fan. Lots of them hadn’t planned to come here, some of them would rather not be here, but had no choice. Their circumstances and their home countries had somehow become bizarre and dangerous places to live.
I thought about my own feeling throughout the performance. I’d been nervous. I felt unsettled, confused by the constant use of a language I couldn’t understand; in this case, Welsh. The camaraderie between the men and women who shared my journey was strong; we somehow supported each other, even though we’d never met, but had an underlying feeling that any of us would do anything to get citizenship. It turned out that the two other ladies in the van with Adalyne and me were spies.
Then I considered what it would be like to do it for real. Nobody would give me a cheery smile and wish me luck at the end of it. I travelled on a train in an upholstered seat. Not a fridge or a packing case or under a false floor in a truck. I went without food and drink for a couple of hours, not days on end.
“What exactly is it the creators are trying to say?” asked one participant back in the safe house.
I’m sure that when he starts to recall his crazy journey from Bristol Temple Meads to Newport, wearing a woolly hat with a daffodil on it and concentrating on a cheap mobile phone, he’ll work it out for himself.
Bordergame runs until 21st November 2014. For more information, go to