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  • Writer's pictureDavid Furlong

RUN RIOT interview: The Great Experiment

Following the Abolition of Slavery in 1833, exploitation and corruption were far from over. Instead, slave owners were compensated and Indian migrant workers were indentured around the world to replace slave labour in Mauritius, Malaysia, the Caribbean and mainland Africa. The Great Experiment by award-winning theatre company Border Crossings seeks to explore the little-known histories of these Indian labourers and the place of their descendants in the world today. Run-Riot caught up with deviser and performer David Furlong to learn more.

Kerenza Evans: What is the driving force behind The Great Experiment? How was the project conceived?

David Furlong: The driving force behind the project really is Michael Walling, the director and Border Crossings artistic director. When I met him, as a young graduate, I didn’t know he had already worked in Mauritius, but since there were so few people like him in theatre at the time, crafting truly international theatre, I approached him as an actor. I loved his orientations trilogy at Riverside studios, a decade ago. I immediately mentioned that I was from Mauritius and then I found out his wife, Nisha was also a Mauritian actress! I think Michael had already wanted to make a project about our origins for a long time but our meeting made it tangible. Suddenly he had two Mauritian actors to tackle their own history.

Two years ago, Michael suggested to start collaborating on this idea, rehearsing at my company’s space, Exchange Theatre, and he brought on board several historians, the Mauritian visual artist Shiraz Bayjoo and a beautiful cast for a whole month of experimentations and research.

Kerenza: What was your role within the devising process? What are the challenges with devised theatre?

David: My role in this process was as a performer and deviser. In Michael’s work, you feel welcome to make bold offers and write scenes. You even have to be a pro-active and creative actor. You need to be quite prepared, documented and, at the same time, completely open and able to improvise, and change direction. Devising only operates with good listeners. It’s such a collaborative process with actors and the director and also our choreographer. Everybody is imagining the show collectively, and at the same time letting out a lot of themselves. It needs a lot of time and care.

Kerenza: Having grown up in Mauritius, how did you bring your personal history to the story?

David: We play ourselves, or versions of ourselves, so I simply brought my Mauritian identity to the rehearsal room, which is so rare for me to explore, that I really indulged by bringing stories, poetry, music from my Mauritius, anecdotes, sensations, memories and my knowledge of traditional drumming. And we also just had long honest conversations about it, what it is to be Mauritian in our experience of it and in the perception of others. And knowing that this show is a unique opportunity, has allowed me to create this work almost like a confession.

Kerenza: What was your research process for the show? How long did it take to gather and assemble all of the stories?

David: Michael and Border Crossings had this idea to work collaboratively with historians on the project. He had gathered an amazing amount of sources, documentations and readings to start with. Moreover, for the first three weeks of devising, we had a scholar in the room to take us through their expertise on the British colonies, the system of Indentured labour, and on Mauritius. We also looked at Shiraz Bayjoo’s work whose audio-visual creations also brought to the room a true sense of atmosphere. Playing with all these, we developed a first version of an unfinished show in about a month in 2017. We are now in the middle of a month rehearsal for the February tour.

Kerenza: Why do you think the histories revealed in The Great Experiment are significant to contemporary audiences?

David: For most people, the abolition of slavery represents the end of a globalised trade and legal exploitation of humans. The system of Indentured labour that followed as a replacement to slavery is hardly known to most of the public. It’s not taught in common history books. Whenever I talk about the show, people answer that they don’t know anything about this world-phenomenon. However, it displaced Millions of Indians whose descendants are living now everywhere in the world. It’s a crucial story of migration to tell. But also, facing this part of our past can clarify the way we look at the present, especially as a huge part of the system was an enormous scam with no hope of return for the indentured workers, and great benefits for the industries involved. That’s always food for thought for the present.

Kerenza: How much do you feel you can alter and elaborate on the stories you are working with? Do you feel you have freedom to be creative or does it feel disrespectful to alter people’s narratives?

David: We first tried to represent the Coolies - the indentured workers- in some attempts at creating naturalistic scenes and it was a complete failure because although we can imagine and document how their life was, it’s impossible to revisit it on a theatre stage and do them justice. It was a bad imitation. So all the conversations we were having around these attempts, all our discussions about the research materials we were fed, all our debates about our relation to this past, these became the scenes. And within these scenes, it became liberating because it allowed us to explore and show some of the more interesting and challenging questions that the show can ask.

Kerenza: What additional events will run alongside the show?

David: First, the set is conceived like a small exhibition on which the audience can walk in before or after the show, so this will be happening everywhere we perform. The tour takes us to a variety of singular venues which all have a special feel to them. We’re going to Tara Arts, which has an earth-ground stage, and one of the performances is taking place in the Cutty Sark boat! And every single venue has agreed to a Q&A so check the programme for an opportunity to debate after the show and meet the actors. At the end of the February tour, the Greenwich Maritime Museum has also organised an exhibition day to complement the show.

Kerenza: Do you think theatre is accessible to all? How would you encourage audiences who might not feel like theatre is for them?

David: I’ve actually asked my fellow partner TOBI KING BAKARE to answer this because he’s in a much better position to answer.

“So, this is actually a topic that I am currently working on fixing…! I have made it one of my lifetime achievements to build a theatre that pioneers the way for ‘all-inclusive theatre’. Theatre is not accessible to all at the moment. There are financial and social barriers that block many divisions of our community from enjoying and entering the world of theatre. I am an Irish born/ London raised Nigerian boy and I can tell you with full honesty, that none of my peers (apart from the peers I have met in the world of performance) go to the theatre or have been to the theatre independently( apart from supporting their good friend, me). Theatre etiquette and norms stem from an out of date society. In our new modern ‘different’ accepting society, we need to start including everyone else by building new spaces, putting on fresh writing, embracing different cultures and lowering the prices!”

The Great Experiment by Border Crossings runs from February 6th to February 23rd at venues across London.

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