The press night of Can’t See for Looking aptly coincided with Anti-Slavery Day, yet the gut-wrenching play, based on
real accounts by multiple human trafficking survivors, did not need this context to make its message effective. The story is heartbreaking, empowering, and crucially insightful all at once.
Tackling the mundane reality within a term as overwhelming as ‘modern-day slavery,’ the play follows the Filipina character of Rosa (Margarita San Luis) as she applies for legal asylum in the UK. Whilst being interrogated by an immigration officer from the U.K. Home Office (Fanox Xenofos), Rosa details the traumatic experience of being coerced into slavery by the promise of a well-paid nannying job in Dubai, one that could lift her family out of poverty. With each day, Rosa watches her rights disregarded by the demands of 24/7 childcare, and is eventually flown to work illegally in London under the abusive employment of a character named Nura (Rania Kurdi). The domestic hell Rosa experiences at the hands of her employers in London reaches heartbreaking levels of dehumanisation, and reminds the audience that the horrors of slavery are far from a historical occurrence.
The modernity of this story is something that playwright Carolyn Lloyd Davies highlights masterfully, and perhaps one of the most important lines in the play is Rosa’s comment that "It's servants like me who make your dreams possible!" The relationship between Rosa and her soft-spoken employer, Fatima, is a critical and intelligently constructed insight into our contemporary feminist moment. Fatima never appears in the play; her voice is imitated by Rosa when retelling the events, and is performed by San Luis with as much warmth as with dismissive vacancy. This dichotomy, well-written and skilfully played out by San Luis, encapsulates the surface level empowerment of this branch of capitalist feminism.
The image of Fatima hosting talks "educating girls to be whatever they want to be" whilst allowing her mother-in-law, Nura, to beat her young female servant at home is a particularly impactful image to invoke. Can’t See For Looking sternly reminds the audience that the financial freedom of the modern "free" woman is only enabled by the domestic enslavement of exploited individuals like Rosa.
Not only is slavery emphasised as a deeply current occurrence, it is also placed right on the doorstep of audience members as we watch the play at Marylebone’s The Cockpit theatre. Performed in one of the most affluent areas in London, the play applies even deeper pressure onto its audience to reflect on their own complicity in the hidden exploitation around them, and demands that we do not "turn away."
The slightly over-exaggerated character of Henrietta, who looks like she has stepped out of the Conservatives’ party-gate video every time she walks onstage, is a complex comedic stand-in for this moral hypocrisy. Played by Laura Fitzpatrick, Henrietta’s character embodies a form of ironic upper-class English privilege; she turns a blind eye to Rosa’s explicit calls for help, yet simultaneously claims to celebrate "different culture." She excitedly boasts of how her new Arab "neighbours," Rosa's employers, are “so well-educated” and a great example that “we’re all human.”
My concern with her character lies in the fact that her charm has a certain Boris Johnson appeal, in that the laughs she elicits from the audience are sometimes fearsomely reminiscent of how the country excused the former prime minister’s inexcusable acts due to this tactical persona of posh foolishness. I understand the intention behind exaggeratively ridiculing Henrietta, but I’m nonetheless slightly tired of seeing characters who should be scorned get a laugh track. Even so, it made the reprimanding given by Angel (Ericka Posadas), Rosa's unwaveringly headstrong moral supporter, have a certain added satisfaction.
Nonetheless, all performances in this five-person company, as well as the work of director David Trevaskis and the crew, have impressive and moving effects. San Luis’ portrayal was heartbreaking and compelling in equal measure, Rosa’s strength visibly growing as the play progressed. In a deeply beautiful moment that I cannot imagine was planned, San Luis spoke a number of the Tagalog lines directly to a group of Tagalog-speaking audience members who had wept during the performance. This is a show for survivors, and a warning for those who want to "turn away."
Can’t See For Looking articulates one of the central reasons I will perpetually champion fringe theatres - they are often the spaces where the least heard voices, ones that frequently speak the most important human messages, get the chance to take the stage. Next time you’re strolling down Oxford Street or along a residential Marylebone road, I implore you to travel 20 minutes further to The Cockpit, and empathise with the hidden suffering that lies beneath London’s glitz.
Can’t See for Looking runs from October 18th - November 4th, 2023. More information and tickets can be found via the link below:
Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor.