Sharing Space: Kieran Hurley


Originally written for Exeunt.

Kieran Hurley has a confession to make. The writer and performer, whose shows include HitchBeats and Chalk Farm, wishes he was in a band. As we chat over the phone about the love for music that has suffused so much of his work, he laughingly describes himself as a “frustrated bass player”. It’s not a unique frustration; playwright Simon Stephens has spoken of his youthful ambition to be a songwriter and once described himself, Sebastian Nübling and Sean Holmes as “three middle-aged men who all wish we were in the Clash”. Hurley even suggests that this band mentality is somehow inherent in collaborative forms of theatremaking:

“I was speaking to someone about this, a fellow theatremaker, and he said that any of us who have ever made theatre in a kind of devised way were just people who wanted to be in a band at school but weren’t really musical. I think there’s a way in which that maybe comes across in some of the work that I make that I perform in.”

This is certainly evident in Beats, the rave-meets-storytelling show that Hurley is about to bring to the Soho Theatre following a second run on the Edinburgh Fringe. For the show, which narrates the coming-of-age story of a young boy in Scotland against the backdrop of the 1990s rave movement, Hurley is joined on stage by a DJ, blending his words with a pulsing score of techo tunes – or, to be more accurate, “mid-90s ambient electronica and a bunch of acid house”. As Hurley explains, the music was an integral part of the piece from the word go.

“With Beats it felt really obvious straightaway that this was going to be a piece that was going to be performed by me and a DJ,” he says. The process of making the show began with Hurley and DJ Johnny Whoop in a rehearsal room together, listening to records and teasing out the narrative. Hurley remembers that there were times when he would find himself “writing to the music”, steering the narrative to meet the emotional pitch of a particular track – “the two were really symbiotic”.

It was also music that provided the first seed of an idea for the show. Hurley recalls thatBeats was born from an interest in the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 – a piece of legislation outlawing public gatherings to listen to music that consists primarily of “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” – and an intriguing statement included in the sleevenotes of Autechre’s Anti EP. In this note, the group explains that the track ‘Flutter’ has been deliberately programmed to contain no repetitive beats; under the prescriptions of the new law, it could still be legally played at public gatherings.

“I just thought this was a really creative, playful, mischievous response to a really absurd law,” Hurley says. He was equally intrigued by the political echoes of the rave movement and its offspring, which started as a hedonistic movement but became increasingly politicised in the wake of the Criminal Justice Act, feeding into the direct action of Reclaim the Streets and the party protest movement. Hurley therefore describes the impetus behind Beats as a marriage between “a kind of interest in rave culture alongside an interest in direct action activism”.

Although the setting of the show might have attracted some initial doubts – “people were like, ‘why are you doing a show set in the 90s?’” – this choice to focus on the recent past has proved artistically fruitful. As Hurley recognises, there is something fascinating about a time that is not far enough in the past to be considered historical, but is also decidedly divorced from the present. “Certainly that kind of distance is interesting,” he reflects. “It allows you to look at a time and get stuck right into it in a particular way, in a way that’s not always as easy to do with what’s going on immediately around you.”

As well as looking at a particular cultural moment, one that Hurley insists is “ripe for further mythologizing”, Beats uses the context of the rave as a way of exploring ideas of shared space. For Hurley, the show is about “young people claiming space and what that might mean, even when it’s not politically framed” – a theme that he also identifies in Hitch andChalk Farm, which are about an anti-capitalist protest and the London riots respectively.

“The discussion of rave culture is a vehicle for a discussion of sharing space communally – the political power of being able to share space together and look each other in the eye,” Hurley continues. “And theatre is a wonderfully analogous form for exploring the power of community and shared space, because it’s what it is.”

For this reason, the context of the theatre space is vital to the dynamic of the show. “I am dead, dead clear that this has to be a theatre show and happen in a theatre,” Hurley says. “The reason the DJ is interesting, the reason the form is interesting, is because it’s happening in a theatre.” Within a theatre space, there is a certain tension between the real and the imaginary that does not exist at a live music event, a tension that Beats exploits. As Hurley explains, “what the piece can’t do is recreate in real terms the particular type of collective attention that a live music event or even a rave might contain, which is its own beautiful, amazing thing, but what it can do is gesture towards a description of that with a kind of collective attention that we have in the theatre”.

While Hurley might be emphatic about the necessity of performing Beats in a theatre context, the piece has nonetheless – as intended – attracted a young and often non-theatregoing audience. Seeing the show last year during its brief run at the Bush, my thoughts turned to A Good Night Out and John McGrath’s call for a popular theatre. Although his demands, which were in many ways specific to the context of writing in 1979, are not directly translatable to now, there is something in the atmosphere of the gig or the rave that seems to at least partly transcend class boundaries. Perhaps the very attraction of the band for theatremakers like Hurley is that popular music has a way of cutting across divides that theatre often struggles with.

Hurley is clear that it is the music in Beats that is bringing in a broader demographic, arguing that simply the presence of a DJ gives people “a hook to hang something on”. However, this new audience and its differing expectations has brought with it new difficulties for Hurley, difficulties that he is determined to grapple with. “If I’m going to be serious about saying ‘I like the fact that this show might appeal to people who might not normally come to the theatre’, then I have to be able to contain their presence in a way that’s not just about chucking them out because they’re shouting throughout the whole show. That’s been a really interesting challenge.”

In being mindful of his audience, Hurley is also deeply conscious of how his politics translate into his work. He says that he’s “not really that interested in a kind of agit-prop polemic”, although he is adamant that “all theatre is inherently political”. Instead of pursuing a model of theatre as manifesto, the politics in Hurley’s shows finds its expression through storytelling, a form that he confesses to being a little obsessed with.

“I’ve got a whole bunch of opinions about stuff,” Hurley says, “but my work isn’t just a vehicle for me to lecture on that; it’s got to be about a deeper, more complex point of connection and exploration, I think. So that’s where the whole human story comes in.” In a piece like Beats, which is ultimately a personal story about one young boy and his experiences, the narrative is “shot through with some political thinking about the world, but it’s not trying to be polemical”.

While nodding to the long tradition of storytelling – “I think that we, human beings, have always needed stories” – Hurley is firm in refuting any idea that the story form is conservative. The linear storyline is often associated with naturalism, but as Hurley points out, stories are not restricted to this one limiting incarnation. “I don’t think that stories have to be bound up with particular forms,” he says. “What sometimes happens is that narrative and story get conflated with stage naturalism, so people might feel that to reject naturalism is to reject stories.”

This rejection is one that Hurley refuses. Instead, as Beats emphatically proves, storytelling can take various different forms, feeling at once ancient and astoundingly new. Or, as Hurley puts it with typically eloquent simplicity, “stories can look like lots of different things.”

Photo: Niall Walker.

Beats, Bush Theatre

Originally written for Exeunt.

The most disturbing aspect of the dystopian nightmare constructed by George Orwell in 1984 is not the unblinking eye of Big Brother, or the children blithely betraying their parents, or even the terrors of Room 101. What really conjures the cold, black grip of dread is the whispered name of the Thought Police, the idea that the final refuge of the mind might be infiltrated and soiled. It is the untamed power of the mind to resist that holds possibly the greatest subversive power, because thoughts are impossible to capture; as Kieran Hurley breathes into his microphone at the beginning of Beats, eyes wide, “they can’t arrest your imagination – yet.”

On the surface, Hurley’s startling piece appears to be simply a surprising blend of storytelling and techno music. These unlikely bedfellows are harnessed to relate the distinctly ordinary narrative of Johnno McCreaddie, a fifteen-year-old boy growing up in Livingstone who becomes entangled in the rave culture of the early 1990s, while at the same time policeman Robert wrestles with the day to day demands of his job and the insistent, disappointed ghost of his father. Yet Beats is, in its own pulsing, unapologetically noisy way, one of the most invigorating pieces of recent political theatre. It’s a strobe-lit love song to the radical potential of the collective act of imagination, the live sharing of thoughts that can’t be clubbed or cuffed.

Although speaking deafeningly to the disillusioned present moment, Hurley’s narrowed focus is 1994 and the Criminal Justice Act’s bizarre outlawing of public gatherings to listen to music that consists primarily of “the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. Collected in the Bush Theatre to the pounding soundtrack of DJ Johnny Whoop, we are – according to this definition – breaking the law. Hurley, an unassuming but fiercely captivating performer, flirts with this idea of transgression and with the lines drawn between real and imagined in the space of the theatre, playfully suggesting that because it’s not real its criminality doesn’t really count.

While Hurley’s characters are vividly drawn and fleshed out by his morphing voice and physicality, much of the weight that gathers behind this simple narrative is reliant on the sound with which it is intertwined. Audience members become auditors in the most literal sense, as the piece channels the power inherent in music and its force to bring people together against the atomising efforts of those in authority. The integral beats of the title are not just beats of music, but beats of the heart, beats in time, the very stuff of humanity and of history.

From the exhilarating rush and noise of the show Hurley has crafted, one grinningly rebellious anecdote sounds a note above the rest. In the immediate wake of the Criminal Justice Act, one of Johnno’s mates explains how the song blaring from his car speakers has no repetitive beats at all – not one. Each series of beats follows a different rhythm, scattering logic. If they had a rave and only listened to this one track, the boy continues, no one could legally arrest them.

It’s a fitting analogy for the subversively chameleonic nature of resistance, which will constantly find new ways to push against imposed systems from within, often using those systems’ own apparatuses. It also speaks to Hurley’s own recycling and reinvention of the essentially traditional form of storytelling in which he is working, visually hinted at by the rather old-fashioned wooden desk at which he sits and its juxtaposition with the light and sound enveloping it. As Johnno puts it upon entering his first rave, “it’s been done before, but not by me” – a fresh sense of novelty that Hurley manages to inject into his mode of narrative, generating a kind of optimism in the ability of political theatre to shift and evolve at the same pace as its circumstances.

As the pulsing sound and lights finally dim, what Beats leaves us with is a collective conviction that this matters. Hurley’s closing refrain, the piece’s own pulse and repetitive beat, rings out as a subversion of the criticism so often levelled at the seemingly marginal activities of political theatre: it doesn’t mean nothing. A simple, casually deployed double negative delicately inverted to reveal its true meaning. It doesn’t mean nothing.