Originally written for Exeunt.
What might a perfect world look like? A new and unlikely project conceived through a collaboration between the Soho Theatre and Newcastle’s Live Theatre sets out to ask just this. Utopia is a reaction against the current overwhelming mood of pessimism, both in the world in general and in theatre in particular, charging its team of writers – including Simon Stephens, Janice Okoh and Dylan Moran – with dreaming up a vision of a flawless society.
As contributor Thomas Eccleshare tells me, the Soho Theatre’s artistic director Steve Marmion, who helmed the show together with Live Theatre’s Max Roberts, “wanted to create a piece of political theatre that wasn’t cynical or pessimistic”. Their aim instead was “to challenge people to write a view of the world in a completely optimistic light and to think ‘what would perfection look like?’”
I suggest that it seems a slightly incongruous time to be thinking about perfection, in light of a strikingly imperfect world, but Eccleshare disagrees. His research has revealed that “utopias have often come out of pretty dark places”; it would seem to be human nature that when the gloom is at its thickest we are most intent on glimpsing that faint glimmer of hope for a better future. Eccleshare echoes this: “I don’t think it’s impossible to view the light at the end of the tunnel just because we’re in such a dark place”.
Marmion and Roberts both agree that the timing is important, precisely because of the prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom. As they see it, people have forgotten political optimism and seem content to accept imperfection. Offering the example of socialism, they contest that a few years ago this concept “wasn’t seen as fantastic but simply as the other option, to be followed and tested and explored. We seem to have lost some of that urge for solving our problems rather than just enduring them.” The directors go on to explain that the project also sets out to differentiate itself from the similarly abundant pessimism in much of today’s theatre. “So much of the theatre that we see nowadays is essentially dystopian with a small chink of hope offered at the very end; Utopia is something very different”.
Unlike Thomas More and other authors of early utopias, however, the writers involved in this project have had to grapple with a pervading atmosphere of cynicism and a generally accepted recognition that there is no one utopia that can satisfy everyone. Conceding this, the directors tell me that “the only option for us as we created this show was to present each writer’s vision truthfully and then celebrate the moments of humanity that shone out in each”. As a result, this is necessarily and perhaps wisely a patchwork of several different, personal utopias rather than one grand, unified vision of a perfect world.
Eccleshare admits that he struggled somewhat with the inherent subjectivity of the idea at this show’s centre. “There’s an awareness of how many people there are in the world and an acceptance, at least in the liberal leaning Western world, that there isn’t one right way of doing it,” he says. “If you’re looking to write about perfection, you inevitably come up against the problem that one person’s perfection is someone else’s imperfection.” As a result, it is a struggle to approach the concept of utopia without a healthy dose of irony, and Eccleshare tells me that, even with the directors’ brief, a lot of the pieces have “a sting in the tail”.
This evening of theatre is also more political than it might appear at first glance. “I think there’s something quite political about the idea in itself,” Eccleshare suggests, going on to ask, “who is imposing this utopia?” His words point to the inherently complex nature of what this project is attempting to do; if one individual’s paradise can be another’s idea of hell, how is it possible to even begin to approach the idea of an overarching utopian ideal without imposing this? The problematic nature of the endeavour has been confronted head on by Marmion, who has inserted a political speech by Hitler as a counterpoint to the plays being presented and, as Eccleshare puts it, as “a reminder of how dangerous utopian visions can be”.
Rather than being presented one by one in a line-up of separate entities, the project’s resulting short plays have been chopped up and sewn together by Marmion and Roberts, all contained within a framing narrative of “six fools creating utopias in a world of blueprints”. These are also intersected with a variety of other wildly different utopian visions, from More to Shakespeare to, perhaps most strangely of all, The Village People. The directors have embraced this ideological messiness, while at the same time acknowledging that what they have produced is only a snapshot: “a show that tried to accommodate all the subjective visions of utopia would quickly become a logistics presentation of town planning and psychotherapy. Instead, Utopia is about the fruitless, stubborn hope that leads us to create such perfect plans in the first place.”
Despite speaking enthusiastically about the way in which this piece has been put together, Eccleshare has personal reservations about projects that ask writers to create work separately and then present that work together, expressing concern that if not done carefully it can become “a bit of a talent show”. Instead of the end result being viewed as a collaborative effort, there is the danger that audiences come along to contrast and compare, to rank the individual elements against one another. “It’s a really interesting form of political theatre,” says Eccleshare, “but whether I think that the best way of reacting to a theme is getting ten writers to work in isolation and create different plays …” He hesitates, before diplomatically adding “that’s a very delicate process”.
Plugging into current debates about new writing and new work, Eccleshare believes that the issue is primarily down to the inflexible definitions that are typically imposed upon British theatre. “The problem is that because the way in which theatre is divided up in this country is so rigid, people will see this as new writing, they won’t see it as a co-authored show,” he explains, his frustration palpable. Eccleshare argues that had this same show been produced by a company who were all in one room together at the same time, it would be seen as an organic whole rather than a mechanical construction of individual parts. He chooses not to dwell further on the point, other than to say that the divide between new writing and new work is “an unhealthy and unhelpful division”.
During our chat about the concept of utopia, what that might mean and how it is investigated through this piece of theatre, Eccleshare muses that theatre itself is a sort of “mini-utopia”. As he goes on to explain, through theatre “we see these impossible visions that are kind of real but not quite real at the same time.” By creating a vision of a perfect society within the essentially ephemeral space of a theatre, Utopia is implicitly recognising both the human capacity to conjure perfection and that perfection’s material insubstantiality. It is telling that the Greek term originally coined by More, which now forms this show’s title, literally means “no place”.
It may be an ultimately unattainable ideal, but Marmion and Roberts believe that the concept of utopia is integral to the human imagination. “Primarily, it is what lies at the end of all our politics and altruism,” they claim. “Without the hope for perfection, or at least the ability to aim for it, our willingness to cooperate diminishes and with that our empathetic relationship to the rest of humanity. Utopia is also the reconciliation of our religious visions with our practical ambitions. It allows us to build Nirvana rather than blindly hoping we will get there someday.”
So what does the project aim to achieve by building these utopias? Acknowledging once again the subjectivity of this concept, Eccleshare’s main hope for the show is that it will inspire debate. “I hope that audiences will be inspired to talk about it afterwards, that they’ll go with friends to the Soho Theatre bar and have a good old discussion about what their utopia is and whether it’s possible to have a utopia now.” Although he recognises that many audience members might simply think “that wasn’t my vision at all”, Eccleshare is confident that it is a positive outcome to get people talking about it at all. “And of course,” he adds with a slight laugh, “I also hope people will say ‘he nailed it’.”
Marmion and Roberts also hope to get their audiences talking. “As theatre producers, we’re at our best when we provoke argument in the bar afterwards. Not necessarily a sectarian, glass-smashing brawl, but a passionate discussion across generations, ethnicities, between strangers or friends, and one that has real content.” Utopia may not come up with any solid answers, but it is asking that vital, challenging question: “how good can we make it?”