03/06/2016

Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying.
Brother, brother, brother, there’s too many of you dying.

An elderly woman settles into a chair in a small row of chairs that looks very much like the row of chairs I’m sitting in, and tells a story about a typical trip to the theatre with her elderly, fidgety mother. Above, a projection screen shows images of a woman swathed in black, hijab flowing over her shoulders, walking through grey city streets, while a voiceover – her voice? – recites a passionate mantra of womanhood. A smiling woman in an armchair announces that she’s not disabled but differently abled; the arms of her chair are yanked away, revealing its wheels. A group of schoolchildren dressed up Dickensian recite a text in Yorkshire dialect dedicated to a mother’s work. Three women from the local Jamaica Society step a stiff-limbed dance together, moving to their own sweet rhythm.

Oh, the humanity.

In his blog post for the Transform festival explaining some of the thinking behind Wanted, Chris began with a reference to a Sondheim musical in which the main character is exhorted to reconnect with desire. He wrote about the same musical in a presentation at the ICA in 2010, 30 postcards gathered under the title House of the Future, in which he encouraged everyone making theatre (or live art, or whatever the preferred classification) to: “Want something. Want something.” I’m always interested in this with Chris, the ways in which new work pulls back to earlier writing, or public thinking, or previous work, all of it connected by the same central concerns, usefully encapsulated at the ICA in the question: “How can the work I make speak in high fidelity to the complexity of how we now live and the almost overwhelming challenge to work towards living better, in a way that feels less violent, less exploitative, more equitable, more joyfully queer?” If he never comes up with a definitive answer, it’s because the place of better living might never be reached. What counts is the journey towards it; each work he makes is a pause for re-dreaming, a moment to look at each other and breathe.

You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today

About 25 minutes into Wanted is a vignette that tells us, sort of, what we’re watching. Eight people of roughly similar age, but different in gender, race and class, stand in a line together, shoulder to shoulder. Another person asks them questions related to their background and daily experience: did they have books in the house growing up, did their parents go to university, can they demonstrate love for a partner in the street without fear, do they feel positively represented by what they see on TV? With each answer they take a step forward or back, and after 15 or so questions, the person standing furthest forward is, surprise, a white (and middle-class, heterosexual, cis-gendered) man. That, says their interrogator, is what privilege looks like. He’s asked to go to the back of the line and bring someone else forward: he chooses a black woman who, judging by the answers she gave, is working-class and queer as well. Now that, says their interrogator, is power.

Wanted does a lot of going to the back and pulling people forward. There’s an impassioned plea to stop violence against Kurdish people, accompanied by a woman tending to a wounded man’s body: “When you talk about democracy,” we’re asked, “do you mean freedom? Do you mean humanity?” A group from Leeds Mencap calls for respect for neurodiversity. A drag queen performs a sequence on the hoop trapeze and there’s a gorgeous array of voices from Leeds LGBT Network. The life of “Simon on the Streets” is represented by a click-step dance of puppet shoes; a black woman testifies to her experience of domestic violence, and how her life is now dedicated to the small beaming daughter by her side, resplendent in pink satin and wearing a sign that reads “warrior queen”. Six teenagers in school uniform – all black, all female – march on to the stage and declare incomprehension at the mess we’re in: are we really letting climate change happen, and Ferguson, and the refugee crisis, and Starbucks get away with not paying tax, and David Cameron run the country? Like a dream team of social avengers, they pull off their school shirts to reveal coloured T-shirts, each emblazoned with a single word: peace, respect, joy, courage, love, kindness. Corny words, hippy words, sentimental overkill. And then they do something even cornier: while balloons cascade over the audience, they perform a dance routine to Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror.

I mean, how worthy, how preachy, can you get? It should be unbearable. But the teenagers’ readiness to take those lyrics at face value injects this moment with a sharp sense of challenge. You want to make the world a better place? You really want to? Then stop waiting for other people – us, children – to do it. They are earnest and guileless and that makes them disarming: and what they disarm above all is cynicism.

Writing about Wanted for Exeunt, Holly Williams was beautiful on this point: “There’s a lot of cheerleading for equality, love, kindness, patience and peace. Is this sometimes naïve, over-earnest, indulgent? Yes, Wanted often is naïve, over-earnest and indulgent. But when you’ve seen 30-odd schoolchildren shout about how war is wrong before breaking into a superhero dance party, cynicism is impossible. And, suddenly, quite undesirable. Wanted makes you think about how you want to look at the world, as well as how you want the world to look.”

The world is full of people ready to pick holes in a vision of a society less violent, less exploitative, more equitable, than the one in which we live under capitalism: people who believe it’s human nature to be selfish and only the juvenile dream otherwise. Their cynicism is toxic in its pervasiveness: watching those teenagers, and the kids Holly mentions, an entire primary-school class who dress in cartoon capes and bounce about like ping-pong balls, I was aware of a tiny voice in my head, murmuring suspicions to do with power: whose work is this, whose words are these, who’s in control here? And yet, in most ways I think of myself as incapable of cynicism – incapable because so often it feels like a failing to be earnest and guileless. It feels stupid.

Father, father, there’s no need to complicate
War is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate

My reflex cringe at Man in the Mirror – I’m sorry, I just can’t be doing with that kind of bombastic pop production job – sent me scurrying to Spotify, searching for songs with a similar mentality but a different musicality. Landing on Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On was perfect. Like the children of Wanted, it disarms with its sweetness and hippy sentiments, right-on platitudes that would be a lot easier to shrug off if the world we live in now weren’t so perilously similar to the one Gaye addressed; if it were any less necessary to argue that #blacklivesmatter, if Donald Trump had less of a national platform, if the “war on terror” indulged somewhat less racism. What’s Going On made me think, too, about songs of the 1960s that addressed or advocated for the civil rights movement, and how little time or space they had for cynicism – because, like Nina Simone says at the start of Mississippi Goddam, they “mean every word”, live every word, that they sing. The only thing Simone is cynical about in that song is the motivation of white people who tell activists to “slow down” in their quest for basic social access, for no other reason than their own fear, whether of losing privilege or recognising its responsibility for causing others’ pain.

In one of the postcards in that House of the Future speech, Chris positioned himself against cynicism as a mode of address; or at least, he describes a dream in which a) he’s a dog, a creature without an ounce of cynicism about it, and b) “I have nothing to say about stagecraft, and I have no real use for, like, the ironic as a category.” There’s an awful lot of stagecraft in Wanted, in that each three-minute vignette carries its own bit of set, or distinctive feature, be that in costume, or furniture, or dance or film or music; it’s easy to see how Chris needed four associate directors – Kirsty Housley, Pauline Mayers, Evie Manning and Jennifer Tang – to pull it all together. And yet, at the same time there’s almost no stagecraft at all. I didn’t have the feeling, watching this, that I had watching 9, the community show Chris made in partnership with West Yorkshire Playhouse as part of the second Transform festival in 2012. 9 was abstract, poetic, inventive; by contrast, Wanted frequently looks and feels mundane. That sounds negative, but I don’t mean it that way: it’s the banality of human expression unvarnished, the truth of “there’s no need to complicate”.

The difference between the two shows had me wondering: is Wanted what Chris wanted as a director? Really wanted? If the answer initially seems to be no, it’s because Wanted also looks nothing like the work he’s made recently with Ponyboy Curtis, which is a manifestation of long-cherished desires; to quote again from that ICA presentation, work that is “genuinely candid in its staging of queer erotics without simulation, without coyness and without much regard for where the line is normally drawn”. But Ponyboy is a tight-knit ensemble of young men who meet every week, are comfortable in their own and each other’s nakedness, and make this work as one among many acts of resistance. As a community show, involving children and people who have experienced sexual violence and other vulnerable people, Wanted has to pay scrupulous regard to the line. There’s a scene in which a woman mimes a frustrated discard of privilege by tearing off her clothes: she keeps her vest and very big pants on, but even that has many in the audience gasping at the raciness.

A different kind of exhalation is elicited by another scene in Wanted: coos of delight at the appearance of a rabbit. It’s typical in so far as animals are another ongoing preoccupation for Chris: in the chapter on nakedness in his book The Forest and the Field he thinks about the “intractable incomprehension” between artist and animal who lack a shared language, and the productive disruption of naked bodies, whether human or animal, appearing on stage. He wanted a goat during an R&D week working on The Witch of Edmonton (instead he got a naked Jonny Liron, which was a pretty effective substitute) and a leopard for Every One (instead he got dancer Akeim Buck, not naked, but otherwise ditto). In the stage version of The Forest and the Field, a ginger cat stalked the room, and please don’t remind me again that I missed the clutch of rabbits on the loose throughout …Sister at the Gate. But the rabbit that’s brought on in Wanted has none of this freedom and communicates more cuteness than confrontation. It’s contained within a small square enclosure from which it never attempts to escape; pure white, it reminded me at the time of the fretful creature who leads Alice to a sugar-coated Disney wonderland, although the song that accompanies this scene is from another story: Bright Eyes, the theme tune to Watership Down (a chart-topper in the year of Thatcher’s election, 1979). Played at low volume, the song is a clue that there’s more going on here than the twee that meets the eye. The rabbit is trapped within the white picket fence of the American suburban dream; the soundtrack is a nod to thinking about social organisation, power, and masculinity. None of this occurred to me until I did a wikipedia. Talk about stealthy.

It makes me think that Wanted, in its unobtrusive way, does exactly what Chris as director wants. It doesn’t fill the stage with Theatre, be that “entertainment” or “experiment”: it fills it with people. Because that, it turns out, is what people in Leeds most want to see on stage: themselves. People with the same colour skin they have, the same religion they have, the same cultural background, or sexuality, physicality or neural wiring. People like their grandparents and parents and friends. Stories that are complex in political argument, like the one triggered by a eulogy for homeless Nigerian man David Oluwale, known to have been victimised by the police, questioning the limits of empathy and setting altruism towards “underdogs and outsiders” against the impulse to protect kith and kin. But also, stories in which they experience more than prejudice. Stories of their autonomy, and bravery, in which they recognise the humdrum details rather than the media image of their lives.

In doing so, Wanted issues a challenge, to artistic directors, producers, programmers, directors, all those who have reached the front of the line in theatre, to reconsider their meagre definitions of “populism” and use their power to bring others, the actual populace, forward. Because how much is that happening? There’s a typically forthright blogpost by Andrew Haydon, published in June 2014, on this subject that I tussled with at the time and still. He suggested that theatres already “fall over themselves” to present diverse stories, and that the last thing we need is “different coloured variations on the British Issue Drama … A Soap For Every Race”. Theatre would do better, he argued, be “more democratic, much more representative, and infinitely more egalitarian” if its employment matched “the local or national level of diversity (and similarly, age, gender, disability, and etc), whichever is higher”. I agree that this is vital, but disagree that a shift in personnel alone is enough to break down a white cultural hegemony, if all those people predominately remain in service to the same canonical texts.

There is so much work to do here, so much possibility. Those people in positions of privilege could hand over power to their local communities to programme their buildings (Matt Fenton did it one year at the Nuffield in Lancaster, and Mark Ball at Fierce in Birmingham: it’s not impossible, and could happen in a less incidental, more sustained way). They could look at the performance happening in community projects, short runs, found spaces – performance that is often surprising, abstract, collagic, autobiographical – and find new ways to work in partnership with it, to house it or work towards it. Those performances are vital, but don’t carry the cultural clout, or the financial backing, of main-house productions – and part of the reason for that is the dearth of critics writing about this work. Are the participation projects that happen at the Young Vic considered noteworthy in the same way as everything happening on its main stage? Would I have bothered seeing Wild Life in Norwich if I hadn’t been employed to document it? Everyone involved in theatre is implicated here.

Wanted asks us collectively to think differently about what we see, and what we want to see, and what we’re making space for in the culture. But it also makes another, more difficult suggestion. The woman who tears off her clothes, discarding the trappings of her western lifestyle, talks about her experience working in an African country, and her grim realisation that “colonialism has never really ended”. She is full of questions: who are we to think our education systems are inherently superior? Who are we to think we can teach indigenous populations of African countries anything? In the weeks it’s taken me to write this I went to Stockholm for a workshop hosted by Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain collective, in which one of the participants talked about her idea of “making equal”, not by turning everyone in the world into a clone of white privilege (as if that were even possible), because to do so exacerbates the environmental depletion that’s becoming catastrophic; not by getting more people to scale up, but by focusing instead on scaling down: rediscovering a resourcefulness and reliance on human creativity that she sees in communities of social outcasts and people living in poverty. Does she romanticise? Maybe. But then, the problem of the past 40 years of feminism is that it’s sought to make equal by fighting to get women – white women, mostly – to the front of the line. The work now is in changing the terms of equality, through conversation and kinship with those further back.

I look again at that key scene in Wanted and wonder: is this show really bringing people forward? Or is it taking care to move around the line: to stand with people precisely where they’re at, the better to hear their voices, telling their own stories their own way?

It used to seem to me that sometimes making theatre was like taking care of a young and particularly fractious baby to whom you are godparent. Sometimes it just cries and cries and nothing seems to make it any better and you end up just shouting at it, “What is it? What do you want?” // Eventually I realised the basic problem was that I had misconceptualised the relationship. You are the baby, and theatre is the godparent, and you are the one being held, and it’s theatre that’s on the brink of despair. “What is it? What do you want?” // Theatre, like all creative activities, but perhaps more than any, is first and foremost the art of wanting. It might matter to some degree what it is that you want, but an attentiveness to the want itself comes first and deepest. // To want, to really want, can feel shameful. We are told all the time not to be self-indulgent in our work. To want is to be the author, and that feels increasingly sticky. To want is to signal a lack, and that can be exposing. Wanting is the easiest and the hardest thing to do. [Postcard 5, House of the Future]

A final note. Roughly halfway into Wanted was a lovely, if seemingly anomalous, moment attributed to “people of Leeds” as a singular entity, when a David Bowie impersonator dressed in the full Aladdin Sane – like a skinny version of Vegas Elvis but with punky spikes at the top – appeared suddenly and raucously on stage to sing Heroes. The research for Wanted was carried out in the weeks immediately after Bowie died: of course a huge number of people wanted nothing more than to see him on stage, alive again. In a funny way, I wanted that too in January: I only got to see him once, playing the entirety of Low, and it was proper icon-in-action stuff. But on the night he died, I wandered around the streets of Brixton among raucous groups of people – some evidently fans, people of various ages but for whom Bowie genuinely meant something; some students and drunk people and people who moved to London for exactly this kind of “cool” “happening” – and joined in with strangers as we sang whatever we know of his songs, sometimes gathered around small music systems or people’s phones playing the original tracks barely audibly, sometimes just a capella, our faces shining back at the stars. Sometimes I want theatre to speak to me and for me. And sometimes I want it to leave a little space, for me to feel like art, music, theatre, whatever, is something I could make, too.