In my MA playwriting class last Wednesday we discussed Alecky Blythe’s extraordinary musical ‘London Road’, drawn from verbatim interviews with the Ipswich residents who neighboured the murderer Steve Wright in 2006. I argued that the play is remarkable in the way it explores the nature of ‘community’, and went on to suggest that this concept has a different meaning in urban and non-urban contexts: in the former, communities are often fractured, temporary and under perpetual threat; in the latter they are homogenising and dominant. This week I’ve seen three plays which seemed to develop, or deepen, that idea.
First up was Ben Musgrave’s fantastic new piece for Only Connect (‘His Teeth’), a theatre company dedicated to working with ex-offenders. Ironically, given the company’s name, the play provided a powerful critique of how the city can resist the formation of even the most basic human networks. In the story the main character, Eric Adegeye, arrives in London from Nigeria and is immediately pulled into a human trafficking ring. Out of a need for self-preservation, he becomes part of the infrastructure himself, compromising all attempts to find common ground with the people he is forced into a position of power over. A love affair with the girlfriend of the gang’s leader is also stillborn, crippled by her drug addiction and fear of discovery. The play presents an underground criminal ‘community’, constantly under the threat of attack from without and collapse from within. http://www.oclondon.org/histeeth
‘My City’ at The Almeida begins, as do so many London stories (‘His Teeth’ included) with a chance encounter - this time between a young man and the woman who used to teach him at primary school. The teacher, Mrs Lambert, has now become entirely nocturnal, wandering the streets collecting hidden stories and meeting, amongst others, the people who walk the tube tracks in the early hours, clearing litter before the day ahead. If these workers are to be thought of as one of London’s many micro-communities, they are also contingent, marginal, invisible… http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/mycity
‘13’ at The National presents another view of a decaying London, the rot from within expressed psychosomatically in the identical recurring nightmare of its inhabitants. In this play, connections are continually made and remade. The characters (rioters, politicians, visionaries, workers) are all linked by criss-crossing narrative threads, without ever coalescing into a permanent unity As one of the characters remarks, it takes almost nothing for a crowd to disperse and resolve itself back into a collection of individuals. http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/?lid=66098
Finally, and on a different note, thanks to Peter for his comments and questions on my last post. Off the back of Edward Bond’s ‘Saved’, he asks about the presentation of the working class in drama. I’d love to throw that question open – so examples of working class drama and its possible stereotypes greatly appreciated! I’ll kick off, though, with a slightly side-stepping point about the means of theatrical production, which in recent history at least has been predominately middle class. That is to say, that the economics of theatre have favoured those with private means. Consider the culture of theatrical internships for example, often impossible to take advantage off without parental (or other) financial support. There is also a tendency for middle class gate-keepers and opinion-formers to self-identify in the construction of a ‘canon’, meaning that marginal or non-dominant voices are squeezed out.
The history of theatre in the late 60s /early 70s is particularly interesting from the point of view of class. 1968 is often taken to be a seminal year in the development of radical theatre practice and several critics have pointed to the existence of two dominant strands. On the one hand were university-educated provocateurs (David Hare, Howard Brenton…) who eventually graduated to establishment powerhouses like The Royal Court and the National Theatre – ‘fighting the fight from within’. On the other, were more ‘working class’ groups like Red Ladder and CAST which sought to grow their performances out of the direct experiences of individual communities. That work was then often produced in situ in working men’s clubs, pubs, village halls, and so on. (In fact, I find this analysis somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, it is the work of the former group that you will find on the bookshop shelves today.)
Anyway, apologies Peter that I haven’t quite addressed your questions here. But some further food for though (and argument) perhaps…