Barber Shop Chronicles, West Yorkshire Playhouse

 

Language matters.

Just a few days before I see Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles, Tory MP Anne Marie Morris casually uses the N-word in a meeting about Brexit. That anyone can “casually use” the N-word at all, let alone in public, astonishes me. Or it should astonish me – the implicit, deep-rooted racism of much of British politics has in some ways ceased to be shocking. But there’s something so sickeningly, complacently entitled about the comfort and the ignorance that allows someone to use the N-word at a public event as if it’s just part of an everyday phrase. Her apology, claiming that the use of the word was “totally unintentional” (how do you use the N-word unintentionally?!), is even worse.

During one scene in Barber Shop Chronicles, there’s an intense discussion about the N-word. Does it reclaim a term associated with abuse and oppression, ask the characters, or does it just make white people feel that it’s OK for them to use it again? (I think of Varaidzo’s essay in The Good Immigrant, in which she writes about the awkwardness of being the only black kid at a party when a rap song comes on: “I’m a big red stop sign in the middle of the dance floor, a symbolic reminder of why they shouldn’t use such a word and who they will offend”.)

Language is a thread that runs right through the play, which uses the social space of the barber’s to connect African men from around the globe. Elsewhere, a Nigerian man frets that the nation’s Pidgin language is being diluted thanks to its integration with English. Others argue in return that all languages must evolve. Words can be freighted with historical meaning and trauma, yet words are also slippery and changeable, a tension that Ellams skilfully holds in suspension.

The barber shop of the title is also a talking shop. Spread out across Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala and London, these are hubs for the African male diaspora, criss-crossed with connections between nations and cities. One character here has an uncle or a brother or a son over there (relationships between fathers and sons are another connecting thread). As one man puts it, the barber shop is like a pub for these scattered communities, somewhere to kick back and open up.

It would be easy for these different places and scenes to feel fragmented, but Bijan Sheibani’s production is remarkably fluid. Shifts of location are achieved with a swish of the barbers’ capes as the cast dance between scenes, backed by some inspired music choices. Rae Smith’s design helps tie it all together, too, with a wire globe circling overhead and different barber shop signs that light up to show us where we are. The scope is at once epic and intimate.

Representation matters.

When I interviewed poet and playwright Zodwa Nyoni a couple of months ago, she made it clear that seeing herself and people she knew represented on stage was absolutely crucial in her decision to start writing. There’s plenty of talk about diversity in the arts, but thinking about who and what is represented on stage is a vital first step – and one that can’t be underestimated. As Nyoni said of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, where I watch Barber Shop Chronicles, “seeing yourself here matters”.

In thinking about representation, I keep coming back to this blog by Vinay Patel. Writing about his desire to mainstream marginal narratives, Patel stresses that what he wants is “not parts that could be played by anyone”. He doesn’t want tokenism and he doesn’t want people of colour in everyman/woman roles that could equally be filled by white actors. Instead, he describes the ultimate aim of what he calls “Stage Four diversity”:

“Ethnics exist as a main character (in a mainstream work). The character is a lead and their ethnic/cultural background inflects the story and their world. But it’s not an overwhelming part of the show. They are great. They are flawed. They are you. They are read as everyone in the way that white characters traditionally are.”

The characters in Barber Shop Chronicles are not parts that could be played by anyone. These individuals are deeply rooted in specific geographical, ethnic and cultural contexts, while not being purely contained or defined by those contexts. They are great. They are flawed. They are us and they are not us. They are allowed to be everymen in one moment and particular in the next. They are each unique facets of a black, African masculinity that is far from the homogenous mass that mainstream representations often paint it as.

The cast of 12 is large for a stage like this, but it feels even larger. Each actor transforms utterly from role to role, adopting new accents and gestures – little tics or habits that clearly distinguish each individual without ever straying into the territory of caricature. Such precision. While the huge collection of characters can sometimes be hard to keep track of, what they and the rich idiosyncrasies of the acting provide is a complex, multi-layered portrayal of black men, which is itself a political act.

Right at the end, an actor comes into the London barber’s for a trim. He wants to look the part of “strong black man”. I’m reminded of Desiree Burch’s blistering one-woman show Tar Baby and her anecdote about the demands of casting directors: be more sassy, be more urban. What they really meant was “be more black”. If there’s anything Ellams, Sheibani and their cast are attempting to shatter, it’s that reductive idea of the “strong black man”, that stereotyped blackness that stages and screens routinely perpetuate.

Stories matter.

As that actor at the end of Barber Shop Chronicles is painfully aware of – and as the actors in Sheibani’s production have no doubt encountered – stories of black masculinity have been damagingly narrow. The black men in Ellams’ play, by contrast, embrace a wide range of backgrounds, attitudes, professions and political views. That shouldn’t be something that needs commenting on (when do I observe that white characters on stage occupy a variety of different positions?), but the fact that it is something that invites comment says a lot about why we need shows like this.

Barber Shop Chronicles isn’t perfect. (After all, what is?) There are moments when the implicit is made unnecessarily explicit, and characters who appear and disappear all too quickly, leaving me wanting more. But it is an important, necessary and most of all thrilling piece of theatre. (And fun. I don’t think I’ve said enough about how fun it is.)

And it matters.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/user/bijansheibani/playlist/3NtrKtomvmA14J6uLJUSim

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Persuasion, Royal Exchange

 

There’s a way of doing Jane Austen. Bonnets. Dresses. Men in uniform. Meaningful looks and wistful sighs. Dancing and afternoon tea.

This is not that kind of Jane Austen. Jeff James’s new production opens with heroine Anne Elliot splayed face-down on the stage under a harsh neon glow. It’s an immediate refusal of the poised female elegance associated with countless stage and screen adaptations. We start not with a ball or a country mansion, but with an image of raw regret and dejection.

That makes this version sound grim and gritty. It’s not. Though James clears room for the remorse and uncertainty that ripples through Austen’s novel, his adaptation (written with James Yeatman) is also an absolute blast. It excavates the satire of Austen’s work from the many layers of frothy period drama that have congealed around it while mashing it up with a series of gleeful anachronisms, from Frank Ocean to foam parties.

The early nineteenth-century manners and conventions gently mocked by Austen find present-day equivalents. The ball is traded for the nightclub and the seaside visit for the booze-fuelled beach holiday. The preoccupation with marriage, meanwhile, doesn’t sound as dated as you might expect. Though matrimony is no longer an imperative for young women, in the mainstream imagination happiness is still bound up in romantic relationships. Instead of the marriage market of Bath or London, we have Tinder and Match.com.

Not that these parallels are pressed. James’s production never explicitly relocates Austen’s tale to the twenty-first century; the talk of marriage and inheritance and the Napoleonic Wars keeps the narrative firmly in its historical context even as, in other ways, this version wrenches it out of time. It’s the sort of treatment that barely raises an eyebrow in contemporary productions of classic plays, but that until now has failed to make its way into adaptations of classic novels.

For this particular book, which confronts many of the tropes of Austen’s earlier work, the irreverent approach works a treat. The marriage that is elsewhere expected (in Pride and Prejudice, most famously, from the very first line) is interrogated in Austen’s final novel. At 27 – the start of the “years of danger” for an unmarried woman – Anne is contemplating what life without love and marriage might look like. Meanwhile Captain Wentworth, the man she loved and was persuaded to give up eight years ago, cynically gets on with what’s expected of him after making his fortune: finding a pretty young wife.

Crucially, this Anne Elliot is ready to tell her own story. As she wryly points out, men have long had the advantage – “the pen has been in their hands”. Now, though, she’s seizing a grip on her narrative. At first, that’s through sheer refusal: whenever her family attempt to interfere, she sharply spins them round and pushes them off the stage, ejecting them from the pages of her story. When this stops working, though, Anne is forced into becoming the protagonist and taking action. Where once she was persuaded, she now stands firm.

In this central role, Lara Rossi is as far from a simpering period drama heroine as James’s production is from bonnets and bows. She owns both her regret and her independence, asserting her right to hold on to past love and reject present proposals. Quiet but fierce, Rossi stares down those who oppose or belittle her. There’s a similar hardness in the eyes of Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth, even when frolicking with new fling Louisa Musgrove. When the former lovers lock gazes, the top layer of Alex Lowde’s stylish white catwalk set shifts position; the earth moves.

This is also possibly the funniest Austen adaptation you’re likely to see. It’s both a reminder of Austen’s wit – too often overlooked or underplayed in other versions – and a tongue-in-cheek take on the very act of adapting. James and his team crash the novel into the contemporary context of its staging in ways that are frequently hilarious. The laughs come both from incongruity and from the occasional, uncomfortable resonances. These characters are figures of mockery, but they’re not always as different from us as we’d like to believe.

The only misstep is a brief kiss between two of the female characters, which comes across more as cheap titillation than as a genuine attempt at queering the otherwise heteronormative narrative. It feels tokenistic – an obligatory but fleeting nod to the fact that not all relationships look like the ones portrayed on stage here. The production is at its best when it does not attempt to update Austen’s tale but instead plays on the gap between the novel and the world in which we now encounter it. Everything on a stage is always itself and something else, a duality that James acknowledges and revels in.

The night before seeing Persuasion, I was at the New Vic Theatre for their version of Arnold Bennett’s novel Anna of the Five Towns. It’s hard to imagine two more different adaptations to see on consecutive evenings. Where Anna of the Five Towns strived to be faithful, the adaptors of Persuasion understand just how inadequate the vocabulary of faithfulness is. When we read or watch Austen in the twenty-first century, we are always at a remove from it, reframing it within our own experiences and social conventions. It’s that messy meeting of past and present – rather than a prettified version of a disappeared time – that this Persuasion puts on stage.

Photo: Johan Persson.

Guerrilla, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

There’s a low drone of anxiety rumbling beneath Guerrilla. A bit like the low, background hum of disquiet that follows me to my desk, to the library, to the shops, to conferences and lectures and demonstrations, to the theatre. That sense of continually trembling on a precipice, caught between safe ground and the gaping abyss while 24-hour news scrolls past.

Spanish company El Conde de Torrefiel crystallise the unease of the troubling present moment. In particular, they crystallise the unease of being young in the troubling present moment. Or, more specific again, of being young and European and (for the most part) middle-class in the troubling present moment. The set of fears that Guerrilla externalises therefore align very snugly with my own. Sitting within this experience is a bit like watching my own head being turned inside out on stage. It doesn’t necessarily offer me a different way of thinking about any of these anxieties, but it does let me look at them from another angle, chew on them for a while.

The show falls into three distinct parts – acts, we might even call them. The first is a conference at which theatre-maker Romeo Castellucci is discussing his work. The second is a Tai Chi class. The third is a pounding techno rave. All three events are happening across the city of Leeds between 21 and 22 April 2019. Interwoven with this timeline, meanwhile, are events from elsewhere and elsewhen. A deadly military pact. A startling scientific discovery. A devastating global war.

At no point throughout this, though, is a single audible word uttered by the performers on stage. One of the most striking things about Guerrilla is its complete absence of dialogue. Instead, narrative and ideas are conveyed via text that is projected above the onstage action. Characters speak, but that speech is always recounted to us from a distance. Statements are detached from their origin. Incidents are reported rather than witnessed.

It all seems to break one of theatre’s cardinal rules: show don’t tell. And yet. For me, at least, there’s something surprisingly theatrical and affecting about the juxtaposition of the text, with all its cool cerebral content, and the onstage sensory stimulation. Encountered on the page, without adornment, Guerilla’s text might read as an essay on the future of Europe and the nature of humanity half-heartedly dressed up as a narrative. In the theatre, something far more complex and interesting happens.

The show’s opening is deliberately drab and innocuous. Rows of chairs are set out on stage, which are gradually filled by people clutching notebooks and looking out expectantly at the audience. As the conference begins, the Italian voiceover of Castellucci’s conversation is joined by a parallel written narrative that takes us inside the experiences and personal histories of some of those intently listening. Within these personal narratives, certain themes are soon pulled on: war, conflict, turmoil. Almost imperceptibly at first, Adolfo García’s extraordinary sound design puts rising, rumbling bass on top of the polite intellectual dialogue, until that’s all that fills our ears.

The creeping anxiety of the first part is replaced with the tranquillity of the Tai Chi class – a tranquillity constantly undercut by the words projected alongside it. While performers make slow, measured, graceful movements, the text philosophises ominously about war, history and class struggle. By the final rave sequence, the pulsing music, lights and bodies – now confined within a tightened stage frame by Blanca Añón’s subtly shifting design – are a visual and sonic realisation of the constant overstimulation discussed by ‘characters’ in the accompanying textual drama.

Throughout, there’s an unsettling slippage of tenses. The ‘present’ of the show’s narrative – which of course still lies beyond our own present moment in the theatre – is sometimes phrased in the future tense, while the great War of ’23 that lurks constantly on the horizon is discussed like the contents of a history book. This shifting temporality reflects a paradoxical contemporary feeling of living at once in a continuous present, on the cusp of future catastrophe, and in a resounding echo of the past. There’s a persistent nostalgia, too, for an abandoned wild and natural pre-history, which seems to me just as misplaced as the distraction sought in screens and raves.

It’s unclear – and cannily so, I think – how seriously we should take the various statements presented to us through the ciphers of different characters. Theatrically, it’s fascinating how the presentation of these lines of dialogue as sentences of projected text reads entirely differently to how I imagine I would interpret characters speaking that same dialogue in naturalistic scenes. What might otherwise come across as clunky authorial statements are transmitted somehow more tentatively and playfully, encouraging interrogation rather than straightforward acceptance or dismissal.

However you choose to interpret the many intellectual statements and debates that the piece conjures up, the overall feeling that’s communicated is one of the ordinary strangeness of daily life carrying on amidst global economic, political and military upheaval. People still dance and talk and fuck and check their phones. This, of course, is a symptom of the relative privilege that El Conde de Torrefiel could do more to acknowledge. Not everyone has the luxury of the anxieties that Guerrilla prods at. Not everyone can party at the end of the world. There are questions to be asked too of the company’s use of participants: how much agency they really have within the show they lend their bodies to, and who can even afford to participate in the first place.

But as a diagnosis of the fears and preoccupations of a particular portion of the global population at a time of what feels like great global uncertainty, Guerrilla makes horribly compelling theatre. Both visceral and intellectual, it makes me really feel the things that I might otherwise only think about. Most powerfully, it captures the strange terror-complacency of the present moment with more force and precision than anything else I’ve encountered.

The Darkest Corners, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

I’m walking home. It’s dark. The usual route – the bright, busy, familiar route – is closed off by roadworks. Diversion signs point down a quiet side street, through an almost deserted car park, round a secluded corner. In an alley between two tall, empty buildings, it’s just me and two men sat in a parked van. As I walk past the van, the door closest to me starts to open. I think: is this it?

Such moments of primal yet well-rehearsed fear are the substance of The Darkest Corners. Every woman who walks alone at night will have thought those three words, or a variation on them. Is this it? Is it about to happen to me? The thing that I’ve dreaded and braced myself for – is it actually happening?

RashDash’s latest show is suffused with the violence – real, imagined and feared – that women face all the time on streets all over the world. Its relationship with that violence, though, is complicated. “We don’t want to make you more scared,” Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen tell us at the start. And they don’t want to replicate the abuse and harassment they are confronting, replacing a violence with a violence. But neither do they want to minimise that abuse, letting silence breed silence.

As in Two Man Show and We Want You To Watch, the problem of RashDash’s premise is integral to the dynamic of the show. Abbi and Helen want to scrap it all and start over. They want to tear apart patriarchy and pornography and violence against women. But they can’t escape those structures. And so they wrestle with what can’t be smashed and put their bruised and bloodied failures centre stage.

Here, centre stage is a car park – one of the dark and potentially fearful corners of night-time Leeds. Sat on upturned crates and listening in through headphones, the audience observe the series of after-dark encounters that play out across this wide outdoor arena. It’s an empty, exposing space, one in which Madeline Shann’s lone female walker looks particularly vulnerable.

Immediately, I hate that that’s my first thought. I see a woman and I see a potential victim. She sees a man and she sees a potential attacker.

These are the kinds of thoughts that The Darkest Corners bristles with. It takes us right inside the female protagonist’s head, which is startlingly like the inside of my own. Real, paralysing fear – what if he’s planning to attack me? – tussles with attempts at rationalising – he’s probably just thinking about what he’s going to have for dinner. There’s a complex representation, too, of how violence infects the imagination and how suspicion taints innocent interactions. “That’s a violent thought,” the woman catches herself thinking, as she pictures a brutal fight with the unwitting man approaching her on the road ahead.

The knottiness of the subject matter and RashDash’s approach to it is alternately eased and intensified by the fantastic series of songs they’ve put together with regular collaborator Becky Wilkie. The show’s music covers the whole spectrum from fluttering anxiety to punky defiance to a wistful ode to freedom and exploration. The lyrics, meanwhile, deliver some of the wittiest lines of the night, skewering the contradictory and often victim-blaming advice handed out to women (“skirts are easy access and heels make you slow, a ponytail is an absolute no-no”).

Not everything works quite so well. Jami Quarrell’s character, a sort of MC-cum-salesman who periodically interrupts with unsettling little skits, is one of the weaker links in the piece. Admittedly, his sales pitches for whistles and rape alarms make the important point that fear and violence for some mean profit for others; it’s to the market’s advantage that the burden of preventing sexual assault falls on women rather than men. The more he appears, though, the less the grating repetition written into the role pays off.

There are also moments when RashDash struggle to prevent their usual explosive energy from dissipating slightly across the expanse of space that they’re working with. But mostly it’s thrilling to see the company making theatre on such an ambitious scale, bursting out of the black box studios that have more often contained them in recent years. Here, there’s room for big, gutsy choreography, as well as for a series of vehicles to drive in and out of the action. There’s something oddly magical and exhilarating about a bus suddenly trundling into a piece of theatre, even if it is being staged in a car park.

As in all of their work, RashDash aren’t here to offer answers. For women, the fear, violence and harassment that The Darkest Corners grapples with is likely to be horribly yet wearily familiar. For men (as my partner found), the full extent of the daily threats and misogynistic hassling that possessing a vagina makes you subject to might be surprising and horrifying. RashDash throw these problems out to all of us, with an acknowledgement of the complexity involved – how, for instance, do men make good allies without turning the issue into a demonstration of their own “nice guy” status? – but also with a galvanising call to arms. This, they promise, is just the start of the fightback.

Lessons of Leaking, Transform 17

Originally written for Exeunt.

Gaming and politics: a combination with tantalising scope. For many of our supposed representatives, politics seems to be little more than a game – one in which the country and its people are gambled for the prize of short-term gains. And then there’s the gaming of politics, the hacking of the system to manipulate results. Elections become just another computer game, but with real winners and losers.

The premise of Lessons of Leaking, then, is intriguing. Part-play, part-game, machina eX’s production promises to insert audiences within a narrative about the electronic manipulation of votes. Not so much actors in the drama as the invisible, controller-clutching forces directing our avatars, the idea is that we, working together as a group, unlock each level in the narrative.

We press start in the living room of Clara and David, a young couple unwittingly caught up in a conspiracy to falsify the results of a referendum on Germany’s membership of the EU. She does PR for the company delivering the electronic voting system; he works for the European Protection Service, a fictional surveillance agency. When Clara finds a mysterious USB stick in her handbag, both of them are dragged into an attempt to uncover a shady deal between the two organisations – a deal with far-reaching consequences for European democracy.

The success of this whistleblowing attempt is up to us. Or so machina eX would like us to think. There’s a clear effort, through intermittent interaction, to make the audience feel implicit in these events and responsible for their outcome. Really, though, our involvement is limited and our engagement – at least in the performance I attended – relatively shallow. Game and politics, rather than being intertwined, feel awkwardly separate.

When the game component of the show works best, we (or at least I) feel like players in a pulse-quickening thriller, racing to discover clues and solve problems. All very well, but fairly detached from the political and ethical issues machina eX are grappling with. And at its worst, the game element is clumsy and laboured (made even more so during this particular performance by some unfortunate technical difficulties). The mechanics of theatre like this need careful working through, and machina eX have some bugs still lurking in the system.

It’s a shame, because the show’s scenario is incredibly topical and the questions it presents – about transparency, privacy, freedom of information, and ends and means – are ones worth thinking through. The problem is, we never have quite enough at stake to fully engage in the debate that machina eX are setting up. Too much of the show is spent establishing or working out the rules of an interaction that offers little to the central narrative other than a superficial sense of involvement.

That’s not to deny the ambition of the piece, which has some impressive technical tricks up its sleeve. There are also some enjoyable nods to gaming conventions: performers periodically glitch, looping dialogue and gestures like videogame avatars awaiting instruction, while multiple options appear on screens. But the audience dynamics could do with the same attention devoted to the tech. Games only work well after testing and testing and testing again. This one is still very much in the beta phase.