Clare Summerskill talks Rights of Passage at The Liverpool Unity

Posted on 12 June 2016
By Chris High
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The Unity Theatre in Liverpool is synonymous with breaking new theatrical ground, confronting issues that affect us all and pushing boundaries way beyond expected limits. Never shying away from the extraordinary or the harrowing, The Unity Theatre has therefore invited writer Clare Summerskill to stage her latest play, Rights of Passage, on Friday June 17th, which recounts the struggles and triumphs of lesbians and gay men who have fled to the UK from persecution in their countries of origin.

“I have been interested in LGBT asylum issues for a long time now,” says Clare “but I suppose that the idea behind this play originated from thinking about how many Lesbian and Gay people are persecuted in other parts of the world that are not as accepting as Western countries, and wondering whether we in the UK, as their LGBT brothers and sisters, have a responsibility to others or if we should just wait until these other countries advance in their attitudes and laws”.

“When I started researching the topic of how LGBT asylum seekers are treated in this country, I discovered that the Home Office questions are specifically designed for the applicant to have to prove that they are gay, which is in itself quite a strange concept. Up until just a few months ago, LGBT asylum seekers applying for refuge would, for instance, be asked to produce photographic evidence of a man with another man in a gay nightclub, or even a video of them engaged in a sexual act.

If the individual didn’t have this evidence, then they weren’t believed to be gay and could potentially be sent back to the country where their life had been under threat because of their sexual orientation.

“In some African countries, rape is used as a huge part of punishment for lesbians, and many gay men are also sexually assaulted. Women can become pregnant from rape in forced marriages, and the existence of any children can be seen by the Home Office as negating their claim for asylum on grounds of being a lesbian.

One of the stories in the play addresses this issue, and another character in the piece, who is a well-known barrister in England, speaks about how he is trying to change the questions that the Home Office ask LGBT asylum seekers so that they might be able to determine in a more humane and less intrusive way whether a claimant is actually gay.

There are three main stories within the play, all of which are accounts from real people, based entirely on interviews, conducted by Clare. “We have the stories of a gay man from Malaysia, a lesbian from Uganda and a gay man from Iran. To compliment these, I also interviewed a woman who works with an LGBT asylum seekers group, and a Human Rights lawyer from Iran, who explains the legal technicalities with regard to Islamic law and LGBT people and acts.”

“I also wanted to explore the lives of asylum seekers after they arrive in the UK, because their harrowing experiences don’t just stop once they get here. In essence, it’s a play of two halves – the before and after – which forms the journey as a whole.”

Clare’s theatrical background is a far cry from her stance on the issues being portrayed in Rights of Passage, however, given that she has been lauded as a “Lesbian Victoria Wood,” by BBC Radio 4s Woman’s Hour and “One of the funniest women in the country,” by What’s On. “I’ve always been one of those people who seems to do a variety of things. For the past 15 years or so I’ve toured my own one-woman comedy shows around the country, including to all of the theatres which have taken Rights of Passage.

“Every few years I also tour my Artemis shows, the last one being Hearing Voices, which was another piece of verbatim theatre based entirely on interviews with a group of mental health service users. It was a very different subject, but nevertheless told in a similar way to which Rights of Passage is dramatised. I also hold writing workshops in London for LGBT asylum seekers in certain groups, called Writing The Journey.

LGBT asylum seeker and refugee organisations across the country have all benefited from the play being staged. Clare’s theatre company, Artemis, has raised funds to pay for tickets for people from LGBT asylum groups and Liverpool is no exception. Members of ‘Many Hands One Heart’, a Liverpool Asylum and Refugee LGBT Support Network, will be guests of the theatre company at the show at Unity, on the 17th June.

About the LGBT asylum seekers, Clare says “It has been incredible, not only to help them to come to the shows, but also to see their responses to the content of the play. They have been just so overwhelmed by the fact that somebody is doing a show about their own experiences.

For some of these people, to see someone who is gay on stage would have knocked them for six, let alone the production explaining particular issues that effect them to a much wider audience. That part of this work has been really, really moving.”

Rights of Passage by Clare Summerskill
The Unity Theatre, Liverpool
Fri 17 Jun, 8pm
Running time: 2hrs 10 with interval
Prices: £10 | £8 conc
Tickets: 0844 873 2888 or http://www.unitytheatreliverpool.co.uk/basket/440-rights-of-passage.html


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