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The Arrival Suspended between worlds

A new co-production between Tamasha and Circus Space brings Shaun Tan’s graphic novel The Arrival to the stage. Sita Brahmachari describes a unique and revealing collaboration.


y father used to tell me that when he was sailing from India to England in 1959 he felt his life was suspended between worlds. Like many migrants, he planned to work in Britain for a few years and return home. Then he met my mother, got married,

had four children, and set up his own GP practice. He felt that his life remained ‘suspended’ between the land of his birth and Britain. Sometimes he used to say that we, his children, were ‘India in Britain’ for him.

My father Dr Amal Krishna Brahmachari. (1931 – 2008) holding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square)

Sadly, my father died in 2008. Before his heart operation, the Polish consultant treating him looked at him with great respect and said, ‘I take my hat off to you sir, for you were one of the ones that paved the way’. He meant that my father was part of an earlier generation of migrant doctors who had smoothed the way for others who arrived later. I was touched by the apparent deep understanding between these two men, migrants of different generations and backgrounds.

It was this scene that kept returning to me when Kristine Landon Smith and I first considered how to bring Shaun Tan’s iconic graphic novel, The Arrival, to the stage. Tan’s profound, funny, wildly imaginative, political, poignant graphic novel manages to capture the eternal experience of the migrant, from the epic sweeps of emotion (leaving one’s home) to the domestic detail (attempting to read a map in a strange city) – and without using any words. Images capturing all of these stages of the journey populate Tan’s novel. Our production is not an adaptation of that work but is inspired by the subject and scope of Tan’s imagination and so certain images, like the sweep of the fearsome dragon’s tail that follows Tan’s man in the hat from his homeland also finds its way into our production. So too do Tan’s extraordinary gallery of paintings, the size of passport photos, of the many migrant faces that populate the book. The texture of Tan’s sepia images is captured in Adam Wiltshire’s set which the circus artists and actors inhabit; a structure resonant of Tan’s ship from which the many migrants disembark.

As Kristine and I took in Tan’s beautiful sepia images we realised how viscerally we responded to this silent novel as the children of migrants. Interestingly in a recent interview for the Methuen playscript, ShaunTan comments that his own identity is what led him to produce the work in the first place.

‘I guess I grew up in a mixed-race family without thinking much of it. Having an Australian mum and Chinese dad was just normal. Sometimes I wonder if that has given me a certain perspective that’s been useful later on as an artist and writer, a sense that there’s no absolute ‘normal’, that reality is adjustable. Anyway, Dad has many interesting anecdotes about migrating from Malaysia to Western Australia in the 1960s, which I only appreciated myself once I started travelling internationally as an adult.’

The finished piece was developed over five years. It has entailed: workshopping with circus artists and actors, forging new collaborations with companies such as Ice and Fire, Write for Life and Woven Gold (who work with migrant communities and bring their experiences to greater public attention); and deep artistic collaborations with the designer, composer, choir and choreographer. In fact, this staging of The Arrival by Tamasha and

10 Books for Keeps No.199 March 2013 Circus Space has been a wholly collaborative journey.

The centre of the piece is an old man named Dele, who arrived in this country from Africa in the 1950’s and slowly built a house in Finsbury Park, which he rents out to newer arrivals. Their experiences form the parts of the story that reach out to the experiences of present day migrants arriving from different homelands and setting up life in Britain. The stories of these newer migrants gathered through real life interviews, echo through the rooms of the house that Dele has built. ‘This house I built myself, this house, with these hands/ These bricks and mortar’

As Dele’s physical state deteriorates he ‘peers through memory’s portal’ and travels in and out of the critical moments of his life. Here he remembers his moment of arrival. ‘Mists of Memory, fog. What did they call it? Smog. Fog so dense I felt as if I was falling through the clouds. Then through the rain-mist I saw it for the first time, just like in story book, text book, all glittering, the river flowing through the centre, and I think yes, this is my dream to make a home in this bring my wife and son here.’

Through Dele’s memory we explore the physical and emotional journey of Tan’s man in the hat. And working with circus artists who create magic with little more than their own strength and skill has enabled us to explore the epic nature of that journey. I find a touching parallel between these brave artists and migrants like my own father who, in 1959, stepped off a ship with nothing but his suitcase, his imagination, intellect and skill and forged a new life.

The story that we often fail to hear in the maelstrom of debate around immigration and borders is the human story. As one interviewee observed, ‘The history of humanity is the history of migration.’

This production, like the novel it is based on, speaks to adults and children just as strongly. Tan’s image of the wise owl embedded in bricks and mortar, that sits on high looking down on the streets below speaks of the contribution of migrants, generation after generation to building our city.

As Dele observes when he witnesses the newest arrival to his hostel. ‘I have become the ancient owl of the city/ I sit in watch/ I listen’ n

The Arrival A Circus Theatre production co-created by Kristine Landon Smith and Sita Brahmachari, based on the illustrated novel by Shaun Tan The Arrival, presented by Tamasha and Circus Space is on tour 21st March – 13 April visiting Southampton, Coventry, York, Newcastle and London.

The Arrival (Modern Plays) Kristine Landon Smith and Sita Brahmachari Methuen Drama 978-1472535009 £7.99

Kite Spirit Sita Brahmachari’s latest novel (inspired by a Cloud Swing Circus artist while working on The Arrival) will be published by Macmillan Children’s Books on April 25th 2013.

The Arrival Showcase photo by Barry Lewis

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