Playwright Chino Odimba’s credits include a re-imagining of Medea at Bristol’s Old Vic and Amongst the Reeds at London’s Yard Theatre. She talks to Roda Musa about her latest play, Twist, a reframing of Oliver Twist set against the backdrop of the modern refugee crisis…
How did you come up with the idea for Twist?
[London-based arts organisation] Theatre Centre approached me. Natalie Wilson, the artistic director, had some idea about an adaptation of Oliver Twist being set in the refugee context, but came to me with really no more than that. Having written Amongst the Reeds for Clean Break Theatre last year, I felt I did not say everything I wanted to say about the situation and the plight of immigrants. It was really exciting that I could go back into that world and try to discover new things for both myself and for an audience.
Why did you choose the story of Oliver Twist?
It really spoke to me, especially in regards to not only the refugee crisis but also in the case of trafficked children. How does a young child, once they are in that position, get out? Reading that novel again as an adult, it just opens up all this stuff for you to really think about. What we as a culture are not really aware of is how a lot of illegal immigrants, especially the young, come from places like Syria and certain parts of Africa, where they are born into conflicts and it is all they have ever known.
Is Charles Dickens’ social commentary still relevant today?
Absolutely. And although I am just telling a story, Twist is very much born out of what I feel politically. I felt very true to what Dickens was trying to do. He is a writer who wanted to tell a story but also wanted to comment on the society around him and how it traps people into circumstances they can’t escape. There are so many children born into refugee camps and dealing with conflicts that have been going on for so long.
What was the process like of adapting the novel into a short play?
It wasn’t easy at all. Myself, Natalie Wilson [director] and Sarah Dickenson [dramaturg] spent a lot of time locked in a room really looking at the classical story. We first wanted to work out what it was that really resonated with all of us, and what we felt would really resonate with a young audience. I also wrote the modern version of Medea earlier this year at the Bristol Old Vic. With adaptations, the hardest thing is the initial choices you have to make. Choosing what to focus on and what to leave behind is really difficult.
Why is it important for young people to see this show?
It’s really easy to lump immigrant children together with a load of other issues in which they are not complicit. I wanted a young audience to become empathetic and much more conscious of that journey. It is a topic that isn’t explained to young people, they are not shown what it feels like and so they lack an understanding. It is important that we engage young people in that conversation. We have got to get beyond patronising them. We say that our youth are very politically apathetic but are we allowing them to emotionally engage with these issues?
Training: No formal training
First professional role: Stage manager trainee, Pentameters Theatre, 1995
Agent: Katie Williams, the Agency