Sometimes we need fiction to help us understand reality.


You know, in the way that watching an episode of Casualty can teach us fancy medical terms like ‘tachycardia’ and ‘cerebral haemorrhage’, or making up songs about bunny ears can help us learn to tie our shoes?


How Not to Drown tells the true story of Dritan Kastrati, an asylum seeker who flees Albania to seek a new life in the UK. 


With everything going on in the news about ‘small boat crossings’, and everyone suddenly feeling the need to give their ten pence on immigration and asylum seekers, these are the stories we need to be hear. And it is hard. It’s hard to hear, and it’s hard to see the realities these people, and these children, have to face - even when told through the medium of theatre.


In 2022, it was revealed that at least 17 asylum seekers had died by suicide or suspected suicide when in detention centres. In 2021, it was estimated that 41% of all displaced asylum seekers were children. This is the reality.


I was lucky enough to hear Dritan’s story at Theatre by the Lake, performed by Thick Skin Theatre Company. 


Immediately, you have to commend the set designer for this piece. The set comprises of one raft-like piece of wood, and minimal props. In its simplicity, this set was strikingly beautiful, and somewhat emotive - so little was used to show so much, and produced such a profound effect. It’s impossible to tell whether or not this piece of wood was actually slanted towards the audience, this could have been an incredible feat of illusional engineering, but serves as a metaphor for Dritan’s vulnerability: his need to go forwards, forwards, forwards, inevitably forces him to teeter on the edge. 


On the edge of safety, on the edge of life.


My second round of applause is dedicated to the directors, and the blatant passion for their craft. This show is the perfect opportunity to showcase theatrical techniques and combined arts to drama students, with influences from Frantic Assembly and GECKO embedded throughout the piece. 


It may seem illogical to tell such a serious story with such theatrical techniques - it is not. Thick Skin perfectly demonstrates the memories of a child, and a child traumatised by the horrors of asylum seeking, crafting a dreamlike world within the bounds of a six square metre space. The ongoing narration from Dritan as an adult helps to structure the story and make it coherent, while offering perspective and insight to demonstrate how Dritan has changed over the course of his life and as a result of his experiences. 


The most effective technique in this entire performance was the multi-rolling. The play begins with each actor telling the audience that ‘I am Dritan’. Aside from the practical aspect of this, this is what we need to hear. 


While we may be under the illusion that asylum seekers are confined to the news, or to headlines of tragic articles, Dritan is all around us. 


Anyone could be Dritan. 


Moreso, we are all one wrong turn of events away from being Dritan.


While Dritan’s story is undeniably powerful, a story is only as impactful as its teller. How Not to Drown is delivered to us by five actors, all retaining their own regional accents - another nod to Dritan’s omnipresence. 


When watching this piece, two actors will immediately catch your attention. One, of course, was Mr. Dritan Kastrati himself, telling his story with such passion and such unmatched talent that brings this performance to life. The other, Mr. Daniel Cahill. A Scottish man of immense stage presence, Cahill’s dynamic vocality and incredible delivery prevents you from being able to forget any of his lines in a hurry - this is exactly what this play needed to do in order to stick with those who need to see it, and exactly what needed to be achieved to make individuals think twice before speaking on asylum seekers, or attempting to undermine their experiences. 


All actors were particularly convincing in their multitude of roles. While costumes went some way to distinguish between mob bosses and foster children, this absolutely could not have been achieved without talented and versatile actors. Miss Esme Bayley was particularly successful at this.


However, each actor clearly has a specific acting strength, which is made apparent in their performances. This is not necessarily negative, but does create a certain multimodality that put a dampener on the performance: Esme Bayley, Ajjaz Awad, and Sam Reuben gave more of a theatrical performance, best comparable to Splendid Productions’ style, perfect for delivering the show to younger audiences, whereas Kastrati and Cahill brought a realism that reminds you that this isn’t fiction, it’s theatre. It is not any individual actor’s approach that is more or lesser than another’s, but a sense of consistency would have united the cast and given a strength to the ensemble performance that just wasn’t there. It is perhaps also notable that certain ensemble members, Awad and Reuben, seemed to appear less, or appear a little shadowed by other actors, and are not as visible as the rest of the cast. 


How Not to Drown tells the story we need to hear today. Despite whatever you or I may make of the set, direction, acting - positive or negative - I remember Dritan’s story. You will remember Dritan’s story. 


And if they made us remember, they’ve done a pretty good job. 


Bravo, Dritan Kastrati. 


Thank you for telling us your story.