Review: Trade at the Pleasance, London

Wednesday 22nd March 2023 at the Pleasance, London.


Reviewer: Emma Dorfman

Any show centred around sexual exploitation and the trafficking of young women is destined to weigh heavily on audiences, but in Trade, written by Ella Dorman-Gajic and directed by Maddy Corner, a balanced script and evocative staging work beautifully, in tandem, allowing the audience to confront and engage with this eternally urgent, necessary story.

The piece begins en media res, as police pound on a much older, tougher woman’s door. This woman, we quickly discover, is Jana (Katarina Novkovic), who used to be a young girl living in rural Bosnia & Herzegovina, shortly after the Bosnian War. Like most people in her country at the time, she aspires to leave it. And so, she decides to flee to London in the pursuit of a fuller, richer life. What follows is not that.

It’s a story of trafficking that is so real that, at times, the piece almost documentary or memoir-like, as opposed to a piece of theatre. Dorman’s text is chock-full of poetic imagery; Corner’s direction, of viscerally-charged staging that, every now and then, reminds us what we are watching is very live and alive.

When Jana finally makes the journey toward London with her boyfriend, Stefan (Ojan Genc), she notes that she drove through her whole life in five minutes– a statement so simple and packed with meaning. Dorman’s writing doesn’t have to push or fight for these small moments of metaphor and poetry within the text: they are inherent to the narrative itself. In one recurring device, for example, Jana marks each scene based on how many days she has been away from home (63 days away from home, 293 days away from home, etc.) as a means of explaining her transformation. Once again, much is said through very little.

Maddy Corner’s staging of Jana’s arc, as well, adds clarity and nuance to an otherwise complicated topic of discussion. When Jana and Stefan make their way to a Sarajevo nightclub, Jana begins drinking and quickly discovers a drugging. In a beautifully engaging moment, the other actress (Eleanor Roberts) slowly pours ‘wine’ from a bottle. It isn’t so much wine-like as it is blood-like: thick, red, sticky, impossible to get off your hands. The device continues throughout, and as Jana spends more and more time away from home and moves very slowly from trafficked to semi-trafficker, there is more thick reddish-brown liquid and bile-coloured goop piled on top of her plain white jumpsuit. The live imagery was so well-executed, in fact, that it was only in this moment I noticed Jana had been donned in all white this entire time.

As Jana chimes throughout the piece to narrate her story, she arrives at a connection between how useful she was in her own family’s business and how useful she can make herself in the ‘trade’. As she gains more and more agency within this shady ‘business,’ Jana finds herself backed into a corner: How to run a tight operation whilst fighting for more agency for the women slaving under you? Jana and the audience are both confronted with this impossible conundrum. And, indeed, it does seem impossible, until you realise what kind of a closely concealed, deceptive operation the ‘trade’ actually is. Suddenly, an impossible story seems all too possible.

Trade is at the Pleasance Theatre until March 25th 2023 – you can find more information and tickets here.

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