Neil Cooper

WHEN Anders Lustgarten wrote the first draft of his play, Lampedusa, in late 2014, it seemed no-one was really talking about what was a then largely un-noticed international migrant crisis. The week before the play opened in London a few months later, Lustgarten notes, over 400 migrants were killed when a boat capsized off the coast of Libya. A few days later, over 700 people were drowned trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, which the play is named after, and which has become a primary European entry point for mainly African migrants.

“The journey of the play is an interesting one,” says Lustgarten, as a new production of Lampedusa prepares to open in the intimate confines of the Citizens Theatre's Circle Studio in association with the young Wonder Fools company, overseen by director Jack Nurse. “I'd been doing a lot of work on development banks, and one of the things they do is displace people, and through organisations like the IMF (International Monetary Fund) there is a dislocation that happens in poor countries because of capitalism, and that creates a huge rupture in society.

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“I could see the migrant wave coming when I was looking at all this, but no one was talking about it. It went from when we first did the play where people would be asking if I was sure about that, to it accidentally coinciding with the migrant crisis bursting into the open. It went from being a play about trying to let people know what was going on in the world, to coinciding with a moment when everyone knew about it.”

For the next few months, Lustgarten inadvertently became what he calls “the go-to man” for TV news companies needing commentary on the migrant crisis and its ensuing tragedies. It was, he says, “a very strange position for a playwright to be in.”

Lampedusa takes the form of twin monologues split between two people on the frontline of what might initially look like very different situations. Stefano is a former fisherman who now earns a living retrieving the bodies of dead migrants from the sea. Denise is a mixed race Chinese-British student who finances her degree course in Leeds by acting as a debt collector for a payday loan company.

“The reason there are two monologues is that migration and austerity are the same thing,” says Lustgarten. “These two things – migration and poverty – are kept separate, and the victims of both are kept apart, and what happens is that poor people are pitted against immigrants in a way that is caused directly and deliberately by the political system.

“It's been interesting in terms of the social reaches of the audiences the play is seen by. In London, when we did it at Soho Theatre, the audience really enjoyed the romantic notion of the fisherman, but they didn't want to know about the north of England. When we did it at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, they really enjoyed the stuff about the north, and this student having to do what she does. I'm really looking forward to seeing it in Scotland, where there's more of a sense of community in a way that people in the south of England don't have, or have educated their way out of.”

Lustgarten was an athlete and an activist before he turned to playwriting, and he speaks with the focussed commitment of both. In this respect, he is on a par with someone like Mark Thomas, who similarly combines a sense of righteous indignation regarding the dishonesty of current political systems and its very intended consequences with a sense of partisan artistry.

“Camus has a quote,” says Lustgarten, referencing French existentialist novelist and former goal-keeper of the Algerian national football team, Albert Camus. “He said everything he knew came from him being a goalkeeper, and I suppose I have a similar thing. It's very hard to fool yourself as an athlete. You can either run a race in forty-five seconds, or you can't. You have to be honest and tough on yourself with that. You get what you put into it, and if you work hard you will get further. In the same way, I try not to cheat myself as a writer, and try to be honest with myself.”

It's a philosophy that has paid off, ever since Lustgarten turned to playwriting following a stint devising academic courses for prisoners in the UK and US, where he also taught drama in prisons.

His early play, The Punishment Stories, was shortlisted for the 2007 Verity Bargate Award. In 2011, Lustgarten won the inaugural Harold Pinter Playwrights Award, and received a commission from the Royal Court. The London based theatre premiered A Day at the Racists the same year, and If You Don't Let Us Dream, We Won't Let You Sleep in 2013.

Other giveaway titles of Lustgarten's canon include Socialism is Great, and The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie. He also adapted David Peace's novel, The Damned United, which charts maverick football manager Brian Clough's short-lived reign at Leeds United, for West Yorkshire Playhouse.

Lustgarten's most recent work is The Seven Acts of Mercy, which co-opts its title from Caravaggio's painting, The Seven Works of Mercy, and, flipping between 1606 Naples and 2016 Bootle, Merseyside, looks at gentrification and the ongoing UK housing crisis. The play is produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, while he is also under commission to the Royal National Theatre, for whom he is writing “a big play, about the rise and demise of Blairism.”

On one level, Lustgarten's explicitly oppositional work seems to chime with a reawakening of politically driven theatre in a way that probably hasn't existed since the 1970s and early 1980s, and which mirrors the state of assorted nations ideologies his plays critique. On another, he keeps his distance from signing up for a new wave of liberal rabble rousing.

“There are a few things around politically in the theatre,” he says, “but I don't regard a lot of it as being fantastically honest. The interesting stuff is coming up from twenty-somethings, who have a sense that the system is broken, and aren't afraid to be direct about that. Some of the bigger things are just reinforcing liberal smugness.”

Given Lustgarten's criticism of the theatrical establishment, having his plays produced by the RSC and the RNT might be regarded as a form of artistic entryism. He sees it as a shift in focus coming from the establishment itself.

“I think there's a real hunger in the bigger theatrical institutions for more radical work than they've been putting on,” he says. “The best example of that is Erica Whyman, who directed The Seven Acts of Mercy,” Lustgarten says, referring to the deputy director of the RSC. “Erica is a really good example of someone who is really trying to change the conversation.”

As part of that conversation, Lustgarten has updated Lampedusa slightly.

“I don't think the play is going to get any less relevant,” he says. “It doesn't matter how many boats are sunk, the situation won't stop. It's the same reason people go to money lenders. If you have nowhere left to go, you're going to take that risk.

“The thing about looking at this in a play is that when politicians talk about it, they take all the heart out. We're trying to put the humanity back into it. What I think people are hungry for is human connection. A play has a warmth there that's all about humanity.”

Lampedusa, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, November 8-18.

www.citz.co.uk