In his essay "Splinterlands", John Ferrer imagines himself as a future historian looking back on the year 2015 and finding, in it, the seeds of ultra-nationalism and anti-immigrant violence that were to follow. It's a work of fiction, but it neatly brings together a sortie of dismaying observations about our times.
In the US, Trump is running on a platform that advocates, amongst other things, building a fence along the Mexican border and banning Muslim immigrants. In Greece we are witnessing the rise of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, and the anti-immigrant parties UKIP, in Britain, and the FN, in France, are attracting a worrying number of supporters. And in Australia, we recently elected a conservative candidate to the office of Prime Minister on an anti-refugee platform; he has since been replaced, but by a leader who refuses to reverse the 'Stop the Boats' policies.
Labels by Joe Sellman-Leava is a piece of theatre which inserts itself into this context, and then attempts to initiate a conversation about race and immigration. It is not a lecture, or a reprimand, but an earnest attempt to explore and understand these multi-faceted issues through the scope of personal experience. This is achieved through the device of literal labels which Sellman-Leava sticks to himself as he relates his story – "male", "25", "English", etc. – as he invites us to examine the meanings behind these words and, perhaps, negotiate past them.
In this respect, Labels is a fantastic success. Sellman-Leava is a charismatic and talented performer, and it is easy to smile, laugh and cringe along with him as he weaves his tale. Likewise, in this collaboration with director and dramaturg Katharina Reinthaller, he is able to make clever use of theatrical devices to not only give life and texture to the presentation, but to provide it with strong thematic and aesthetic cohesion. Thus, despite the modular nature of the narrative, which is mostly comprised of anecdotes, Labels feels very much 'of a piece'.
The danger of a show like this, which is so overt in its political and social commentary, is that it will fail to entertain or, worse, opt for a hackneyed and obvious message. Labels is able to dodge both these accusations, and offers a surprisingly nuanced, comprehensive and light-hearted examination of its subject material. This is a show well-worth a look in.