“Of all the disgraceful things that European countries are responsible for, this is the most disgraceful, “ says activist playwright Anders Lustgarten of the drowning of hundreds of migrants trying to reach the southernmost Italian island of Lampedusa.
“How can you allow thousands of people to drown, and do nothing about that? How can you be aware of it and have no policy?”
“It’s extreme laissez faire-ism … if they make it, you send them back. The ones that don’t make it – well, they shouldn’t have taken the risk in the first place.”
Lustgarten doesn’t mince his words or tackle trivial topics: “Because the ruling elite has become more vindictive and cruel I’ve become more determined to punch them in the face by any means necessary.”
His previous play, Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre, was about an aerial bombing on the Iraq-Turkish border that killed 34 civilians: his new one, Lampedusa, takes on the issue of 170,000 migrants who took the risky sea journey from Africa to Italy last year.
For a start, he says, “Our understanding of migration is fundamentally wrong at every level. We misunderstand why people come. A lot of the reason people come is because of the things we do – extensive landgrabbing and privatisation and takeovers of developing country economies. That’s one of the greatest, and most misunderstood, drivers of migration.
“Our acquisition of cheap assets and of cheap labour is contemporary colonialism, really.”
“There’s a direct connection between the stuff that we do and the moral responsibility we owe to those people.
“It’s time, he emphasises during a rehearsal break, for an intelligent conversation about migration. Britain has an ageing population and the welfare system needs hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps millions, to run it.
“I’m not saying that migration is a panacea or doesn’t have massive social consequences. I’m not saying that I’m an untrammelled supporter of more migration, but as things stand we need a lot more people.
In addition, “If you want to bring people in on an economic basis, then you have to increase taxation on the rich” to pay for the extra houses, schools and resources: “I’m all in favour of that.”
Lustgarten is a trenchant speaker but his willingness to admit other sides to an issue means prospective audiences can be confident that they won’t be at the receiving end of a diatribe.
He also feels that the human aspect of the issue is important. But he couldn’t work out how to capture such a dramatic, panoramic topic as mass migration on stage – until he saw a play (Grounded) about a female drone pilot and realised how narrative and monologue could overcome restricted space.
He’s certainly scaled down the problem, because Lampedusa has only two characters, a fisherman who trawls bodies, and a pay-day loan collector.
“The play is about people who keep reality at arm’s length until they can’t any more. A human connection cracks through their façade,” he explains.
“What I try and put in the play is the way in which new people and new relationships and fresh blood give us something. I find this country cruel and pinched and harsh and missing human warmth, and there’s something in the relationship that these two characters develop that gives them more than they had before.”
He hopes the play will provoke a debate, unlike most current theatre: “I’m really surprised and disturbed at the conservatism of the theatre world right now, particularly in terms of its relationship to showing emotion, compassion, solidarity.
“With some decent exceptions, I find theatre, and the left in general, passive, unwilling to fight.”
• Lampedusa is at Soho Theatre, Dean Street, W1, until 25 July. Info: 7478 0100
+ 11 July, Arts and Activism, panel discussion
+ 18 July, The Migration Crisis, panel discussion