EFR - Reviews of You, Me and the Distance Between Us

You, Me and the Distance Between Us

Mon 22nd – Sun 28th August 2016

reviews

Hannah Congdon

at 04:20 on 24th Aug 2016

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It is hard to know where to start with this review – as Ellen Muriel herself points out in a kind of performative disclaimer at the start of the show, any portrayal of the refugee crisis is riddled with complexities that make it a topic of conversation around which many tentatively tiptoe. Ellen refuses to do so herself, and I will try to follow suit; her performance tells, using various media, the multiple narratives that emerge from her work in European refugee camps.

An Exeter University graduate and self-proclaimed member of comfortable middle-class society, Ellen fully acknowledges the privilege of her own position, the risk she faces of slipping into a trend of ‘’voluntourism’’, and the complications that arise from making art from a humanitarian crisis without exploiting it. She does so in a dialogue with herself, beginning with a long idealistic speech detailing her initial reasons for working in the camps, before the nagging cynicism in the back of her mind interrupts, pointing out that she has minimal qualifications of any practical use, and has no business getting involved in something so patently beyond her control. In short, she is asking us to put aside our judgements and prejudices – she has evidently heard them all, and to walk away from the show dismissing it as sanctimonious self-promotion would be lazy facetiousness.

The narrative then takes the form of a silhouette puppet show, with delicately carved cut-outs depicting queues of refugees waiting for food, accompanied by Ellen’s raw and husky voice, using song to describe the scenes she witnessed. The simple refrain ‘‘they queue, they queue, they queue for food’’ that recurs throughout becomes a little grating, but does convey effectively the sightless end to this monotonous routine that so many of the refugees are forced to endure daily. Perhaps more importantly, it leads into an unblinking representation of the clash between refugees and police on the Greek-Macedonian border in April of this year, which was viciously dispersed by Macedonian police with rubber bullets and tear gas. The final hand-puppet sequence is perhaps the most poignant; Ellen relates the erratic behaviour of a refugee volunteer she worked alongside, slipping between Arabic and English as she assumes his voice. He eventually explains his changeable emotions, showing her a photograph of his cousin, hung upside down from a tree, beheaded. All the while, she creates the scene of a woman mourning over her dead husband using simple hand-puppets, and gradually this one tale of loss merges into another and another, until the mass of names and stories she describes become a humble tribute for these unjust deaths.

There was just one moment of weakness in the show, when Ellen assumes the personalities of several of her co-workers, mocking them for falling into the clichéd stereotypes she aims to avoid. It is comic relief, yes, but it is comedy borne from the very kind of harsh judgement she asks her audience to refrain from applying to her, and feels somewhat hypocritical however accurate it may be. Other than this, she does not put a foot wrong in this moving and frank illustration of our shocking global predicament.

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Naoise Murphy

at 08:26 on 24th Aug 2016

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Ellen Muriel’s one-woman show ‘You, Me and the Distance Between Us’ is the only show I have seen at the Fringe that received a complete standing ovation. Such is the emotional power of the material, the inventiveness of the script and the skill of Muriel’s delivery in this compelling exploration of suffering and resistance. Muriel spent six months volunteering in refugee camps across Europe. Now she has brought the stories she heard there to the comfy, middle class audiences of Edinburgh, demanding that they be heard.

Starting with ‘a little about me’ firmly establishes that this is a deeply personal show. The subsequent poetic piece about privilege, asking herself if she really has the right to tell these stories, intelligently pre-empted criticism. It acts as a sort of disclaimer, an acknowledgement of the problems inherent in this kind of volunteering; complicated motivations (ego-boosting, collecting Facebook likes), capabilities (can you actually do anything to help?), what to say to people back home…the list is long. Muriel is well aware of this, she articulates these issues more eloquently than anyone I have ever heard. But concluding that her experience, and more importantly, that of the people she met, urgently needs to be talked about, and with the caveat that this is ‘only one person, one perspective,’ she proceeds.

Beautifully weaving together song, storytelling, role-play and puppetry, Muriel has created a poetic monument to the displaced people of the world. Her mournful voice evokes scenes of grinding misery and hopelessness as she sings about the daily life of the refugees, with its endless queuing for basic necessities. Her simple shadow puppets, created using a tent as a screen, were unexpectedly stunning. Used to tell the gripping story of protests at the Macedonian border, it was impossible to look away. Switching to Arabic at certain moments throughout seems to bring us closer to the sounds of the camps and the lived experiences of the inhabitants.

Muriel gives an honest account of the experience of volunteers, playing with stereotypes of self-centred and self-important volunteers in some short, exaggerated sketches. The scene recounting her first volunteer experience - the panic, the stress, the language barrier – demonstrates her charming self-deprecating humour.

The incredibly powerful final scene will remain etched in my memory for a very long time. It is simply the most beautiful piece of puppetry I have ever seen, and the accompanying text explored the horrors of conflict in a harrowing way. ‘You, Me and the Distance Between Us’ should be compulsory viewing for everyone at the Fringe, for sheer artistic power, and, of course, because this is not a subject about which we can afford to be indifferent.

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