While the end product is not so much a community theatre project as a Rimini Protokoll-style exploration, Michael Essien, I want to play as you… saw director Ahilan Ratnamohan struggle for years to bring the world of African footballers stuck in lower-tier European clubs to the stage. A former footballer himself, Ratnamohan managed to join a community gathered around an Antwerp park, where players came together to practice and keep fit. Sometimes, he saw them moving on to decent clubs, but for the most part he witnessed athletes trapped in a loop of amateur contracts, dodgy managers and agents, visa issues and deportation threats, racism and constant, crushing moves from one end of Europe to another.
With these somber realities in mind it’s no small wonder Ratnamohan managed to actually produce a show. Some of his collaborators got deported, others went on to different countries and different clubs: this precarious position transfers onto the stage and gives Michael Essien… a rare layer of actual urgency – the story better be told now, as tomorrow some of its protagonists might not be able to make the curtain call. Ratnamohan combines the actual experiences of his five performers – five West-African players who between them probably had a stint in most European countries – with passages of football choreography. Put together they illustrate the everyday existence of this group, in which the draining physical work that all professional athletes commit to stands side by side with the more pressing issues of avoiding police and finding the next meal.
Michael Essien… is however by no means one-sided. It doesn’t just point the finger of blame at the ethically challenged low level football clubs and managers, but rather exposes a complex conundrum of neo-liberal, post-colonial and migrant issues. The player community is not without its problems; the pressures from home countries, those to do with money and those to do with pride, often come as the last straw that pushes players into doing things not usually connected with the moral high ground. Opportunists exist on both sides – it’s just that the first world ones operate from a much more comfortable position, devoid of many existential worries.
Ratnamohan cleverly avoids emotional blackmail of any kind, instead focusing on transporting the atmosphere he found in improvised training grounds onto the stage, the sense of community not deprived of jealousy and conflict. He lets the audience in on the true perseverance of the European dream that doesn’t evaporate even when a European manager uses a gun as a motivational tool and he delivers it all without much pompousness; the subtle suggestion is that football corruption is already well known – its underbelly shouldn’t really come as a surprise.
What he doesn’t do however is consider his story as a piece of theatre. The football choreographies are initially intriguing but quickly become repetitive and lose their appeal, the rhythm is barely existent, and the lack of a thought out theatre language is perhaps best exemplified through the show’s ending – a five minute sequence of football-inspired dancing as the lights fade out. And while it’s worth taking into account that Ratnamohan probably had other things to worry about – working with amateurs scattered around a continent or two on a scarce budget probably doesn’t leave much time for stylistic considerations – it never really seems like he considered the visual language of this dramatic story. That fact doesn’t diminish the poignancy and honesty of his subject, but does perhaps lessen the immediate impact that this performance – a piece of theatre and not a piece of storytelling alone – can have.