Rule 35

A new play is to turn the tables on its audience this month by asking them to step into the role of women held in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, while former inmates will play the guards.

Called Rule 35, after the Home Office provision intended to protect vulnerable detainees from abuse, the immersive theatrical show aims to allow the public to experience the fear and isolation of the British detention system, says the Manchester production company behind it.

“The theme emerged from the women’s own concerns,” said Katherine Rogers, producer of the Community Arts North West Exodus project. “We have worked with 60 women refugees and asylum seekers living all around the city to develop the play and 30 will now take part in the performance. Eight of the performers have suffered this kind of treatment in detention in Yarl’s Wood or in Dallas Court reporting centre in Salford and it has had a very negative effect on their emotional health.”

Audience numbers will be limited to 80 and they will be warned about the “disconcerting” content of the play at the box office of the Z-arts venue. “It is quite a harrowing production in many ways,” said Rogers. “I don’t want to give it all away, but the audience will be dealt with as if they were detainees. The women are playing the guards, so we are turning things on their head because we believe the arts are crucial for giving a platform to women who don’t have a voice.”

The final show will be followed be a discussion between the audience and the women. “When we do politically engaged work we always give people a chance to talk through the issues with the cast. They feel the detention system is almost designed to drive them mad. Most of them went in perfectly well and came out with a mental health problem.”

One such cast member is Mavis Smith – not her real name – who came to Britain nine years ago from her home in Bulawayo in Zimbabwe. “It has been very tough. Not easy at all. At times you just pray and pray,” she said. “I feel like crying when I think about it.”

Now 51, Smith has recently lodged a fresh claim for asylum. She first came to Britain because of government threats against her husband. Her shop had been used for political meetings and, when members of the ruling Zanu-PF party found out, both she and her husband fled. The couple lost contact during their escape. Three of their four children now live abroad, although not with Smith, while one remains in Zimbabwe. In 2012 Smith was detained for three months and became ill with suspected TB. Isolated, she was allergic to the medicine prescribed and was eventually taken to hospital. Finally released, she said she still has nightmares about her detention and about a knock on the door that might see her back behind bars.

“I have bad dreams about that time, not about Zimbabwe any more,” she said. “It was not nice at all.”

Smith now lives in Gorton, Manchester, and cooked for a local charity until she began studying for a future career in social care. She based her character in the play on one of her own guards at Yarl’s Wood (“someone who was very horrible”) and believes the drama has helped her to cope. “It will be better now. It will comfort me and it will give us all some relief. It has been helpful to be with other women. When you keep it inside you think about it too much. As soon as you say it you feel better.”

Performances of Rule 35 will run for one day only, Saturday 28 March, said Rogers. “Where necessary we are paying for childcare and we will make sure they are fed between the performances too,” she said. “The friendships that develop between the women are another one of the real benefits of this work. It really increases their confidence, as well as making them feel they have been heard.”