S&C regular contributor Dianna Djokey interviews Celia Meiras, who plays Hanna in Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland, a play by John Retallack being staged at the New Theatre Royal on 16th October. The play has been described by the Guardian as exploring ‘the tensions that arise in depressed communities when refugees arrive’.
Dianna Djokey: Can you tell us what the play Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland is about, who your character is, and the important part your character plays within the story?
Celia Meiras: Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland is a story told in two parts. The first is set in 1999 and the second part is set in 2015 so it follows two characters – two girls and then as women – called Hannah and Hanna. And most of the action takes place in Margate: one is from Kosovo and one is an English girl from Margate, and basically the story follows them from when they were sixteen years old.
When Kosovo Hanna arrived in Margate she [was] an asylum seeker, a refugee from the civil war between Albanian Kosovans and the Serbs. Margate Hannah is sixteen and part of a large community of people who are struggling and quite unhappy about the sudden influx of refugees and foreigners. When they first meet it doesn’t go very well but through their shared love of music, pop stars and karaoke, they find a friendship.
[In] the second half [of the story], life has [taken them] in different directions and they meet again in 2015, in their thirties. They are in many ways different people, but they are dealing with similar issues of migration and refugees’ issues. So, in 2015 we touch upon [the] Syrian conflict, [and] Calais, the jungle – the large refugee camp in Calais.
Without giving too much away, it’s about friendship, and [also] what it’s like to be a host country – how that’s changed and how the UK and many parts of Europe have changed the ways they welcome people [or not].
I play Kosovo Hanna. I play a 16 year old and a 30 year old, it’s a two-hander, and so both characters – Hannah and Hanna – are vital. In both parts of the story, Hanna is a bringer of change. She opens up her friend’s mind to seeing things differently than they normally would.
I think in terms of her function [in] the play, she is there to represent the plight of the refugees. Her story is a story of many: the process of becoming a refugee and the dangerous journey you have to go on, a desperate flight from home, the horrors you may have suffered, the desire for [a] new life. But [there’s] also how she impacts the other characters, in the way she is there to help them look outside of their own circumstances and see that there is a bigger picture.
DD: Yeah, it touches on a lot of topics that are happening in real time. The play [touches] on how the media reports on the refugee issue and how they are portrayed. What are your thoughts on how the media does this, and do you think the way they report is part of the problem?
CM: That is a really interesting question and I have strong feelings about that. We don’t try to tackle that [in the play]. Although we do touch upon political figures such as UKIP, we don’t necessarily try to give a conclusive answer. At the end of the day, we are still trying to look at individual choices whether to be welcoming.
It’s interesting and yes I do agree with you, I do feel the media has a strong impact but also we are currently politically in a time where no political leader can – in the current climate – safely say that they can be arms wide open [to migration] and ever expect to get into government again, It’s happening across Europe, and it has to do with [how] we the people see things. Is it that we are choosing to believe what the papers say? Is it easier to believe? Is it all too big for us to even look at?
It is interesting, the media coverage from 1999 ’til now has hugely changed. We’ve gone even more like the BBC, which went from talking about refugees and people fleeing war, [to] talking about migrants, which is a much more ‘grey area’ word. So, yeah, there is how much the media is steering [the discussion], but are they also responding to the hardening of hearts of people?
DD: It will be very interesting to see the play come to Portsmouth, it’s something that may resonate with many people [and] seems to be a timely play. What attracted you to the role of Hannah?
CM: My relationship with this role is about 17 years old, because I played Hanna in a previous incarnation of the play, Hannah and Hanna, which Act One of [Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland] is a slightly edited version of. At that point I was just starting out, I was attracted to the writing, and I felt a real connection with the character, I loved playing ‘the other’.
But it was tricky to negotiate clearly not being Anglo Saxon, and exploring some of that really appealed to me at the time. It was a challenge, yet beautiful and heartwarming because at [the] heart of the writing [the play] allows people the capacity to change. And now we have the second part, which explores similar things.
It’s very vibrant writing, very energetic, but it also has a lot of moving sequences and things told without words. [The play is] trying to allow the audience to see two points of view. It’s really easy to go, ‘Ugh, those people are that.’ But actually it’s important to have a dialogue and it’s really important to be able to walk in other people’s shoes: both the aggressor and the person that is being oppressed or attacked.
And that’s what I really loved about this play, that it allows you to do that, and allows you to walk into two different ways of seeing things.
DD: Can you [talk about] a few of the themes the play speaks about that would connect with audiences?
CM: Migration, refugees and their status. We look at the bigotry [around migration], how it’s formed, and [we look] at how communication in close proximity can change people’s perspectives.
DD: Can you speak about the journey Hanna and Hannah have as friends?
CM: [Laughing] I can’t really without giving too much away! They do not necessarily have a friendship, in the sense of hang[ing] out with each other.
They meet each other in the first half, and they are connected by their commonalities. In the second half, they have found who they are. So the [play explores the] tension and the struggles in between: the first half has a fable-like quality and the second half is more of a discussion. [Laughing] They really articulate the dislike of each other opinions and political stances.
So in the first half, you have their innocence: one is being bigoted [with] bigoted actions, but [she’s] a kid, there is an innocence [about] racism, xenophobia. In the second half, what you have is something akin to meeting people who don’t consider themselves racist, or bigoted.
It gets a bit uncomfortable for the audience [and] hits close to home. The play asks how far would we go to help someone in distress? We might [think] yes, I would open the door or let someone stay at my house, but would we? So it explores that [from] more than one point of view, not the newspaper’s point of view [but] actually, emotionally explores what that would be like.
[Laughing] But I can’t give too much away!
DD: What would you like the audience to take away from the play?
CM: It’s really hard this one, because I find it hard not to get a bit emotional. I don’t want to get all soapbox-y but I suppose really I’d like people to sit in someone else’s shoes for a bit; if they can walk away and see past the prejudice, from the left or right.
If it encourages people to be friendlier, more welcoming [or to] go and help out in Calais [or] anything like that, then brilliant.
Hannah and Hanna in Dreamland is playing at the New Theatre Royal on 16th October at 7.30pm and tickets are ‘Pay What You Can’: part of the New Theatre Royal’s commitment to making the arts accessible to more people in Portsmouth. Just book your seat, and after the show pay what you can, whether it’s 10 pence or ten pounds.
This article was amended on 11th October 2018 at the request of the writer, to clarify the conflict between Albanian Kosovans and the Serbs.