This is 1,600 years of Romany history in less than an hour. It comes complete with time travel, characters from every epoch, and some cracking good theatre. But this is much more than a play. It’s a social history of Gypsy and Traveller people dramatised through storytelling and acting.
The performance starts with the spotlight on the vardo – that beautifully crafted Gypsy wagon we know from storybooks. Of course, most Travellers today – as Crystal, our heroine, reminds us – live in trailers.
She opens the back hatch of the caravan and addresses the audience.
“What are you staring at! Never seen a vardo before?”
She slams the doors shut.
This vardo belonged to her grandfather and she loves it. But today there are other things on her mind. She is fed up with the racist bullying at school and is considering flunking lessons.
That’s the cue for the vardo to transform into a TARDIS that journeys back in time. We start in AD 400 and follow the Romany’s route of dispossession, criminalisation and extermination: from the Middle East to southern and central Europe. We pursue the trail into discriminatory legislation and practices that still exist in 21st century Britain.
Crystal (Kavanagh Rose-Rattigan) is on stage for the whole performance – and she draws us into this temporal journey with tenderness and conviction. Alongside her, two other actors (Jasmine Atkins-Smart and Hadleigh Harrison) transform themselves into a dozen roles across 16 centuries with their rapid and compelling costume changes. It’s a visual delight while the musical background complements, without upstaging, the action.
This is an ambitious hybrid format involving theatre, storytelling, historical reconstruction and political education. It is compelling across all those dimensions. At times, we may want greater grief or anger from our heroine – but this would be to mistake the complexity of the role which combines part actor, part narrator and part protagonist. At other times, the script can feel overly linear as it proceeds in a straight line across the centuries – but this does help the audience locate themselves in a long (and horrific) history.
This performance is an enormously important achievement. It remains entertaining while also raising awareness about the racism and injustice faced by Gypsies and Travellers today. But it’s never hectoring.
Crystal’s Vardo, written by Suzanna King, was first performed at the Pavilion Theatre in Brighton during June 2012. Since then it has played at theatres and storytelling festivals; for health and police professionals or in prisons; and at events for teachers or pupils in schools throughout England. You can also book Crystal’s Vardo by contacting Suzanna King at the Friends, Families and Travellers charity in Brighton, who can offer a post-performance workshop for adults or children.
So, go see a vardo, and the life behind it. As Crystal says: “We’re still here!”
Rialto Theatre, Wednesday 27th June 2018
Words by Mike Aiken
Photo by Francesca Moore