Originally written for Exeunt.
I’ve been struggling with hope recently. So, it would seem, have Powder Keg. Even with my stubborn optimistic streak, 2016 was a tough year in which to remain hopeful about the state of the world – and 2017 might well prove even tougher. This is essentially the starting point for Morale is High (Since we gave up Hope). The title’s a bit misleading – hope hasn’t entirely flown, or at least it didn’t seem that way to me – but it’s certainly a show that’s worrying away at recent global events and how the hell we as (small, flawed, ineffectual) human beings respond to them.
That anxiety is expressed through a fraught back-and-forth between two mates, Ross McCaffrey and Jake Walton. In spite of the subject matter, the pair make an affable double act: Jake’s chirpiness counterpoints Ross’s anger, while Ross challenges Jake’s shrugging attitude to current politics. The catalyst for their fragmented discussion is an unlikely bit of time travel. Ross has made a trip to 2020 and back – he even has the shiny, sequinned Primark jacket of the future to prove it. So what does the world look like at the (probable) time of the next general election?
Morale is High is less about glimpsing possible futures, though, than it is about questioning where we are now. The different snatches of stories that Ross brings us from the future are just as confusing as the present and prompt the same sort of knotty, unanswerable questions. Loose ends gather, flapping, at Ross and Jake’s feet. At odd intervals, meanwhile, the guitars at the back of the stage are snatched up for bursts of song, abruptly cutting off the intertwined narratives. This is theatre in an argument with itself; a scrappy dialogue between anger and apathy and guilt and despair. It’s messy, sure. But it also feels a lot like the inside of my head at the moment. This is an uncertain piece of theatre in uncertain times.
There’s a sense, too, that events in the last few months have overtaken outlandish predictions, leaving Powder Keg grappling – in more ways than one – with current affairs. The show can’t help but buckle a little under the pressure of recent events. I’m reminded of a line from Ali Smith’s recent book Autumn, about people in the wake of the EU referendum checking their phones “to catch up on the usual huge changes there’ve been in the last half hour”. It captures brilliantly the runaway feeling of the news over the last year – a feeling that Morale is High also recreates, even if it’s through the sense that Powder Keg themselves are racing to keep up with everything unfolding around them.
Amidst all the complex, tangled argument, there are odd clunky moments – a joke about the Second Coming, a visual gag with a water bottle – that seem like hangovers from the rehearsal room. On the whole, though, Morale is High is a piece of sophisticated if appropriately provisional thinking. It is suspicious of easy answers and of the action that it seems at times to be advocating. At a time when the UK is visibly divided, Powder Keg are starkly realistic about the things that hold us apart. Even the intoxicating sense of community generated by a protest march has to be manufactured. “You can’t just get rid of the things you don’t like,” Ross sneers at Jake, reminding him of the violence and the tear gas. His words nod, too, to the parts of our own nations and communities that we might prefer to disown or ignore: the racism and intolerance that, following the referendum, can no longer be swept under the carpet.
But Morale is High is no simple expression of nihilism (though the seductive temptation of nihilism is certainly in the mix). In Hope in the Dark – a life raft for many, including me, after Donald Trump’s election – Rebecca Solnit offers a nuanced definition of what she means when she talks about hope:
“It’s important to say what hope is not: it is not the belief that everything was, is, or will be fine. The evidence is all around us of tremendous suffering and tremendous destruction. The hope I’m interested in is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act. It’s also not a sunny everything-is-getting-better narrative, though it may be a counter to the everything-is-getting-worse narrative. You could call it an account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings.”
An account of complexities and uncertainties, with openings. That sounds a lot like Morale is High. Unusually for a time-travelling narrative, Powder Keg’s show asserts that actually the future is unknowable; we are not offered the comfort of visiting and as a result changing our collective tomorrow. Not knowing, though, is itself an opportunity of sorts. The gaps for action and change might be small, but they are there. As Solnit puts it, “hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act”.
And in the end, we’re not alone. As Ross confesses, the simple expression of anger – raw, unsophisticated, screaming at the top of its lungs – is a way of feeling better. But so is seeing someone else on stage being just as angry. Neither of us is the only one struggling with hope, and that, in a strange sort of way, feels hopeful.