We start with a man sitting at a desk and a speech from Shakespeare – Henry V to be precise. Inventor of the parchment passport in 1440, it would seem. This leads into a breathless dash through the history of the passport. Twentieth century innovations include the 1920 League of Nations standardisation, with 32 pages allocated for visas and entry and exit stamps, the allocation of French as the official passport language, perforated numbers in the 1960s, then bar codes in the 1980s, and finally to the electronic passport.
Thaddeus Phillips is an engaging storyteller, and just hearing him speak is enthralling, as we are taken on a breathtaking, juddering journey around the world in 80 minutes as we rattle through the 17 border crossings of the title. He tells his tales in many spoken languages – he speaks, or can do a good impersonation of speaking, a whole swathe of tongues. But there is more: the piece is made with the eye of a scenographer, so it is no surprise to read in the programme notes that he is not only an actor/director, but also a thetare designer. He interacts with his set in many and various wondrous ways. It’s just a table and a chair, and a lighting rig bar decked with various lights pulled down to chest height – but suddenly we see the flashing wings of a jumbo jet, where a stowaway has hidden in the wheel hub; a train carriage crossing through the countries once known as Yugoslavia, with a motley crew of passengers and conductors vying for his space; or a high-tech armed-to-the-teeth Israeli border run by team of superwoman soldiers that becomes a Jordanian border run by an old man dozing in the corner of the room.
There’s plenty of humour, sometimes cheery and laugh-out-loud, sometimes dark and edgy. Croatia features a few times: there’s a really unnerving ferry journey from Italy to Croatia (‘a country so new that the ink on the document is still wet’), just our hero and a bunch of very drunk Bulgarian truck drivers; and later a ridiculous, Kafka-esque situation trying to enter Bali with a Croatian passport. The Indonesians haven’t actually heard of Croatia, and don’t have it on a list of approved countries.‘Look! You have Yugoslavia! It’s the same!’ doesn’t wash. This story is told with a very lovely nod towards Wayang Kulit, the table and chair tipped to the side creating a shadow theatre set, and a giant cockroach in the horribly hot detention room shown as an enormous shadow beast walking across the ceiling.
Most of the stories come from the past twenty years, and I’m assuming (although perhaps I shouldn’t) that at least some are autobiographical, from his own experiences of international travel. Also thrown into the mix are historical reflections – for example on meetings between Winston Churchill and TE Lawrence (aka Laurence of Arabia, cue theme tune). One of my favourite border crossings is a tale of a painstakingly difficult operation involving a tunnel between Egypt and Gaza used to smuggle in not arms, not medicine, but a bucket of KFC for the family.
Some of the stories are short and snappy, which works very well; and some are long and drawn out, which works well in some cases and not so well in others. A lengthy tale of Amazonian encounters with hallucinogenic substances is a bit too long-winded, for example. Some are threads that are weaved throughout the show – the most harrowing being the fate of the man who stowed away in the wing hub. We froze to death, and when the plane landed and the wheel hub opened, he dropped to the ground and was discovered on a street in Mortlake, West London.
Thaddeus Phillips is a dynamic and always engaging performer, and this is a show that manages to be funny and entertaining whilst simultaneously flagging up the absurdities of our border-obsessed, wall-building, visa-demanding, passport-stamping world.
17 Border Crossings is presented at Summerhall by Aurora Nova.