LILIAN, the debut radio play from award-winning composer Kasia Głowicka, who lives in The Hague, will have its Dutch premiere on ArtsTalk Radio at the beginning of January.
Based on a true story and using real WhatsApp message transcripts as its source material, LILIAN takes us into the lives of a refugee trapped in the notorious Zitan Detention Centre in Libya and the human rights professor who is trying to aid him from her home in Europe.
The source material for this play is an extensive archive of WhatsApp messages exchanged between a real-life professor and a young Eritrean man trapped in a Libyan refugee camp. How did you come to hear about it?
Several years ago I organized a seminar about Alan Turing, the computing pioneer. Professor Mirjam van Reisen was one of the speakers. She lectures on Computing for Society at Leiden University and she is absolutely fascinating to listen to.
We kept in touch after the seminar. One day, when I was visiting her at her office in Brussels, she revealed to me that she was in communication with a young man being held in the Zintan Detention Centre in Libya.
He had found her number on a document somewhere, stored it in a borrowed cellphone and then used WhatsApp to message her and plead for help with his situation. by the time she told me about it, they had been in communication for around eighteen months. When it was all printed out, it ran to 350 pages.
Although they were on different continents and really living in different worlds, through this constant messaging they became a daily presence in each others’ lives. It wasn’t just text: he would send her pictures and videos of the camp, things which were happening to him and around him.
This young man was living through so much trauma on a daily basis but bureaucracy moves so slowly. What was it like for her, over the course of that eighteen months, to be trying to help him but unable to make anything happen quickly?
She’s a professor and a mother, so her day-to-day life is busy. Sometimes it was hard for her to balance that with her efforts to help this young man.
She would be physically present but her mind would be on Libya, or a new message would arrive and immediately draw her into this world again. At times she felt she was living two different lives simultaneously. She also felt a lot of guilt, both for not being fully present and available for her family and also for being safe from harm while Tesfay was at risk every day.
At the same time, there were often moments of humour in their conversations. Her daughter watches a reality TV show called Love Island. The show’s concept is simple – until you find yourself trying to explain it in writing to someone who comes from a completely different culture.
What made you decide to turn this story into a radio play?
The transcript lay on my desk for a while. I knew I wanted to do something with it, but wasn’t sure exactly what format. I was thinking about some sort of interactive project, but then Warsaw Autumn approached me with the offer to write a radio play for this year’s festival.
At first I declined, because I’ve never done one before, but that was kind of the point of the offer: the festival likes to take artists out of their comfort zone. So then my mind turned towards this story and how it could be adapted into a radio play.
It was an interesting challenge for me because not only was it my first radio play, it was also the first time anyone would be attempting to take a WhatsApp conversation – complete with photos, emojis and so on – and try and adapt that into a performative work.
In the end I felt like I could do it. I had some experience with writing when I was younger and it probably would have been an alternative career for me had I not chosen music. Also, as a composer, you already have a sort of sense for the elements of drama, such as creating suspense and shock and so on.
What are you hoping listeners will take away from LILIAN?
For me, it’s a story which illustrates the power of hope. Two people from different worlds are united by their shared sense of humanity. Both are going through dark times – in the play, her character has a comatose daughter on life support – but they never lose hope and they carry each other through.
It also touches on some themes which are very relevant to our times. The refugee crisis has mostly disappeared from the front pages in Europe but remains a daily struggle for thousands of people.
As a sort of background character in the play, WhatsApp illustrates the power of technology to connect people no matter where they are in the world. People can be in each other’s lives despite being separated by geography and other barriers.
I’ve witnessed first-hand how a shared sense of suffering can unite people. I arrived in the Netherlands in 2001 to study music at the Royal Music Conservatory just a few days before 9/11 happened.
Back then the fees were very low, which meant that students came from all over the world: America, South America, Asia, Africa, everywhere. The community was amazing. When 9/11 happened, there was this sudden camaraderie. Everyone came together in an empathy of pain as they we tried to understand what had happened and how the world was about to change.
Right now are are living through another global-level event. The coronavirus has brought the world almost to a halt for the past six months. Did that have any effect on producing LILIAN?
Usually a play would like this would bring everyone together in a studio, so there’s a uniform recording level and the voice actors can feed off each other. Because of travel restrictions, all the recording had to be done remotely.
That was a challenge but it was also an opportunity. I wanted to maintain as much authenticity as possible, so I worked remotely with a voice actor in Europe and a voice actor in Africa. That distance between the voice actors also mirrored the distance between the real-life protagonists.
There were some technical issues. The European voice actor had access to better recording facilities than the voice actor in Africa did – he had no noise-cancelling microphone, for instance – so there was some work to be done in getting the qualities similar. But I’m very pleased with how it all turned out.