Rule 35 is a new production from Community Arts North West, an immersive show which allows the public to experience the fear and isolation of women held in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood. Northern Soul’s Jack Stocker talks to director Cheryl Martin, creative producer Katherine Rogers, and actor and former detainee Mavis Smith.

Jack Stocker: What is Rule 35?
Rule 35 production rehearsals Cheryl Martin: Rule 35 is actually a home office regulation that says that people who have been tortured, or who are frail, are pregnant, or suffering from mental illness or serious medical conditions should not be held in detention. There’s a weasel thing at the end of it, ‘within reasonable limits’, or something like that but really, if you’re very ill, tortured or pregnant you’re not supposed to be there.

What we found from talking to detainees is that that seems to be just about universally ignored, and independent groups who’ve looked into the detention system have especially said that Rule 35 seems to not work for the people who’ve been detained. The reason why we’ve called the show that was because it was really clear that a lot of serious medical conditions, elderly frail people, and a lot of pregnant women – women who are terrified of losing their babies because miscarriages are common in detention – all of that shouldn’t be happening.

Katherine Rogers: So if you’re believed to qualify for Rule 35, you’re supposed to go to the doctor and fill out a Rule 35 report. The doctor is then supposed to do an examination and submit a report, and then that will be considered. That’s how it’s supposed to work, but a lot of Rule 35 cases don’t get that far.

JS: How do you plan to involve the audience?
CM: It’s not a regular show – it’s not a sit-down-and-watch-it sort of show. Mavis and other women are playing guards and from the instant you come in what we’re going to do is treat the audience like detainees, so it’s really highly interactive. What happens is you get processed. There are songs and things, which sounds strange when you think about what Yarl’s Wood is like – but basically what we’re trying to do is give the audience an experience that’s a shadow of what it’s like to be treated as a detainee. So that’s the main thrust of the show.

Rule 35 production rehearsalsJS: It’s been described as tragi-comic. How are the comic elements integrated?
CM: There are some really upsetting scenes but then it’s a little bit like Alice in Wonderland, it’s like going down the rabbit hole. Things that you expect when you think of someone who’s been persecuted in another country and you think about how they should be treated, then you look at how they actually are treated, it’s Alice in Wonderland logic; it’s completely the opposite of the way things should be. As for the comedy, it’s a bit difficult to say, but it’s just that the guards are so awful that it is sort of funny.

CM: You wouldn’t believe it. If the Channel 4 thing hadn’t come out I’d expect people to say ‘oh that doesn’t happen, you’re exaggerating’. But I’m glad that they were caught saying all those awful things, because no one can accuse us of exaggerating. This is what they do. And sometimes we’re using songs as ironic comment on how the guards are acting.

KR: There’s a lot of very stylised movement as well.

CM: Yes, it’s not realistic in a way. Once you put music in it it’s not real life. But what the actors say are all things that the guards have really said. It’s awful. It’s black humour. Very dark. It’s only funny because you cannot believe that they treat people this way.

JS: Can you explain a bit about how the original idea was formed?
CM: The first time I worked with this group of women was in January 2013. At that point I think only one person in the group had actually been inside a theatre, and we did a story about leaving your country and trying to get here and first going through immigration. After we’d done that story, I thought that they’re now a very focused and much more accomplished group because some of them worked with the Royal Exchange and Women Asylum Seekers Together (WAST). They have a choir and they do all sorts of stuff there. That group was campaigning around Yarl’s Wood but also I knew that there was a lot of controversy around it and what was going on there. There had been exploitation, they’d refused admission to a UN inspector, and there was a huge scandal last year around guards who had been sexually assaulting women. I knew that we had people who had been in there and I thought ‘we should really talk about this’.

We had a lot of conversations at the beginning of this project because I knew it was very traumatic for a lot of people, but it turned out people wanted to talk about it, people wanted to campaign about it and that’s how we came to be doing the show. Within the last two weeks Channel 4 have done some secret filming in which you can hear what the guards are actually saying. I thought I knew what was coming, but when we came to do the improvisations and they started saying things that the guards said, I couldn’t believe it. It’s just inhumane treatment, it’s dreadful. After everything that the West went through in the 20th century with people seeking asylum, being turned down and sent back you would have thought we’d learned our lesson. But people coming here to be safe are still being treated in an awful, awful way. And I thought I knew but I did not know. That’s the impulse behind doing it. That’s why I want the audience to have a little taste of what it’s like, because just hearing it isn’t the same as feeling what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that kind of treatment.
Rule 35 production rehearsals

Mavis Smith: What Cheryl has been saying is very true. That’s what happens in detention centres. You think that you are not normal or that you are not a human being, you think ‘so I don’t belong to this country’ or ‘what have I done’. You feel like you have committed the worst crime in this country by the way you are being treated.

I think Yarl’s Wood is the worst prison in England because I never expected this country to have such things happening. During everything that happened in that centre I was thinking ‘that’s the law of this country’. I’m so happy about this play that we’re doing because it’s actually showing the way that people are being treated in that place and I believe that people don’t exactly know what is happening. At the time I was thinking it’s something that’s private and should not be told to people. I even thought it was a crime to open up and tell people that’s what was happening to me. Now that Cheryl and others have decided to do this play, I’m really relieved and I’m taking everything out. It’s like I’m telling people that ‘is that the way that British should treat asylum seekers?’ It’s just horrific.

JS: How did you and the other detainees connect with each other?
CM: I think that a lot of them actually met coming to do the first show in 2013. We went out in the community and talked to a lot of organisations that refugees and asylum seekers go to. We have an outreach process.

KR: We’re also partners with the Boaz Trust, who are a local charity for destitute refugees and asylum seekers.

CM: And I went to WAST and talked to them about that. Mavis, how did you guys get together?

MS: They told us. We have our director who gets the information. We have a drop-in every Friday and then we tell other people about such things that are going on. If other women are interested they can go on and join. Some have children and can’t come, but three-quarters of the women decided to come and join.

KR: We have 60 women involved in this project overall, and about 27 will be in the performance. Of those 60 women, only eight wanted to talk about their detention experiences.

CM: There are a few more than that – something like 10 or 11 – but some won’t talk about it.

MS: One was beaten very badly, so she will not say anything. She cries if she talks about it.

CM: See, I didn’t even know that. You just don’t ask people about it.

Rule 35 production rehearsalsJS: What do you hope to accomplish by staging Rule 35?
CM: I guess my thing is that I want people to know what’s going on. We want to experiment a bit with the form and stretch the actors – give the actors the experience of doing a different type of play. On an artistic level, we want to try something different, mess with people’s heads a bit. On an emotional level, it always comes back to the fact that people came here for a safe haven – and this is what happened to them.

KR: For us it’s about giving women a platform to speak about issues that are close to their hearts. Often, women refugees and asylum speakers in this country are spoken for and don’t get a chance to speak themselves. The Exodus programme, which this production is part of, is a platform for people to have their own voice and represent themselves in the way they wish to be represented. Beyond that it’s about raising awareness about the wider issues about detention and the impact on emotional and physical well-being.

JS: Have you noticed any palpable change in government attitude since you started?
CM: There’s been a lot of exposés since we started.

KR: There’s been the results of the all-party parliamentary enquiry which go some way to addressing some of the issues in detention, such as the recognition that there should be a time limit.

CM: They’re talking about a 28-day time limit. That’s the biggest change that’s coming about.

KR: They’re also recognising that some people shouldn’t be in detention. For example, understanding that pregnant women absolutely should not be detained. Again, there’s a recognition that Rule 35 reports are not serving women, or not even serving detainees generally. Some of the things that we’ve found through speaking to the women have been reflected in that enquiry, so we can see positive changes. Also there’s a notion that, where possible, there should be community-based solutions. Detention should be a last resort really.

JS: Do you think that productions like Rule 35 help with this progress?
CM: I think that the more people like you who talk about the production, the more that helps get the message out, especially to people who aren’t particularly tied to the news schedules.

JS: Have you noticed any specific results from this productionRule 35 production rehearsals in particular?
CM: Well a lot of it is for the benefit of the people who are in it. Mavis, how does it affect people being in the productions?

MS: It has made a great difference in my life and I can confidently speak on behalf of the other women when I say that we’ve now got so much courage and we’ve learnt so many things. Cheryl and so many others have encouraged us, and made us feel that we are human beings and we can talk and open up with things that we’ve been scared of saying. Just being with this group has made so much difference. Women really feel the encouragement, everything. It’s because we’re together, it’s made us human. When I miss a session I really feel there is something missing. I have to go!

JS: How can people help you to accomplish your aims?
CM: First it has to be good theatre, so I hope that we all feel proud of it and that it was good art. But part of it being good art is how it affects people emotionally. I really want to make them react emotionally – not just think but feel, you know? Make people see – ‘this is what’s happening in your name. Do you actually think this is good?

KR: We’re going to have actions for people to take up if they choose to. We’re going to have a post-show discussion at the end of the final performance which will give audience members to question the cast and director, and also speak to people in wider detention campaigns. There’ll be a chance to find out more about actions they could take personally.

JS: What’s next after Rule 35?
KR: This is part of a wider programme of work with women and asylum seekers so we’re very keen to continue that. That would be subject to funding, of course. But we definitely want to do more of these kinds of productions. Possibly smaller and more transportable productions, because this is quite difficult to move, so we’re only able to do it once in one location. We’d like to be able to tour but that would need to be more malleable than the current format. There is a definite plan to do more of this kind of work and continue working with people whose voices are not listened to in society.

By Jack Stocker

Rule 35 will be performed on March 28, 2015 at Z-arts in Hulme, Manchester. For more info, click here