Around 3,300 people are currently being detained in Immigration Removal Centres (IRCs) across the country. There is no upper limit on how long a person may be detained in a centre, a state of affairs that marks Britain out as exceptional among the majority of Western democracies.
Women held at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire have reported abuse and neglect from their guards, including rape. MJ Harding’s Removal Men was inspired by the playwright’s involvement in direct action on behalf of a Yarl’s Wood detainee. It explores the failures of recognition and self-reconciliation of two guards at a fictional IRC.
Mo has fallen in love with and impregnated Didi, one of the detainees of the centre at which he is employed. We follow his ineffectual battle to save her from deportation through combination of song, dance and caustic-whimsical dialogue that at its best is worthy of Joe Orton.
In his note on the play, director Jay Miller writes that he wished to relate the situation of the IRC’s guards to a broader “crisis of compassion” within our society, one in which “hierarchies seem so entrenched that they render love […] almost powerless”. More than this, Removal Men shows us how the very experience of ‘compassion’ may be deformed under a regime of subjugation and exclusion.
George, Mo’s superior, claims to have achieved a new lease of life through participating in something called a ‘Compassionate Officer Programme’ – designed, presumably, to help guards ‘relate’ to their detainees. He has as a consequence “got right back in touch” with his sexuality and now enjoys being beaten and dominated at a sex club in Walthamstow. The play leaves it chillingly unclear as to whether Mo and Didi’s relationship is based in any sort of reciprocity, or comes about as a result of Mo’s coercive fantasies.
“You feel like love, but you’re the embodiment of violence,” George tells him in the climactic scene of the play. All of the characters in Removal Men are grotesquely fluent in the rhetoric of empathy and “non-violent communication”; they quote Krishnamurti and are constantly giving each other hugs. The use of touchy-feely therapy jargon to obscure and legitimise tyranny has become a common object of ridicule, but the subject of the play lends a fresh astringency and moral force to its satire.
A work of art which invites its audience to enter into the tribulations of those who half-willingly participate in racially-motivated state violence is likely to be controversial. In light of recent events, it may seem at the very least untimely. But though they are never represented directly on the stage – we never see or hear from Didi – the detainees of Yarl’s Wood and other IRCs are not left voiceless within Removal Men.
Harding and Miller interviewed several current and former detainees in preparing the play for the stage. My guess is that much of the acute psychological realism in its portrayal of the guards derives from this collaboration. The presence of the victims is felt throughout Removal Men not so much in the audience’s sense of their suffering bodies, but through their own sardonic observations on their jailers.
You can donate to the Yarl’s Wood Befrienders program at www.ywbefrienders.org
Until 10 December
The Yard Theatre, Unit 2A, Queen’s Yard, White Post Lane, E9 5EN