The Prize, Underbelly

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Originally written for Fest Magazine.

It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts, right? Maybe not for the hundreds of determined Olympic hopefuls we have anxiously watched compete during London 2012. It is this passion and intense desire to succeed that is explored in this delicately constructed verbatim piece from Murmur and Live Theatre, drawing on interviews with British athletes past, present and future. For them, failing is simply not an option.

Performed by a cast of five on an almost bare stage, the power and the poignancy rightly lies with the voices of those interviewed, their experiences communicated through the actors. Murmur has spoken to a huge range of athletes, from a female diver who competed in the 1950s, when the honour really was the taking part, to athletes with ambitions for this year’s Olympics and Paralympics.

The carefully selected and assembled snatches of the resulting interviews reveal the athletes’ drive, dedication and struggles without ever tipping into the trite sentimentalism that the media around the Games has often fallen prey to. The principal emotional manipulation comes courtesy of projected text revealing whether or not those speaking qualified for the Games, a device that could be intrusive and heavy handed but is here executed with heartbreaking simplicity.

Propelled by the energy of the Games’ success and looking towards the Paralympics, The Prize resonates perfectly with current national feeling. But by being so of the moment, it is difficult to envisage much of a future life for the piece. Beautifully formed though it is, it feels—much like the sporting triumph it revolves around—fleetingly ephemeral.

Utopia, Soho Theatre

Visions of Utopia have a knack of falling flat on their face, so it seems only appropriate that this new collaborative theatre project should recruit clowns to conjure its perfect worlds. In this partnership between the Soho Theatre and Live Theatre in Newcastle, six fools fumble through flawed blueprints, searching in vain through all of humanity’s failed efforts for a reliable model of perfection. These blueprints come courtesy both of a long line of thinkers, whose words are revealed to us via projected quotations, and of an assembled group of writers who have all produced their own responses to the central theme.

Which all sounds great on paper, but is underwhelming in its execution. In the hands of joint directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts and their diverse team of writers, big concepts are rendered bafflingly small and an idea that is fascinating by itself becomes marred by its own realisation. Looked at a certain way, this is all ironically apt given that the piece is dealing with the desire for and impossibility of a utopian world, but this is not quite enough of a justification to excuse what more often than not simply feels like clumsiness and poor scene selection. A frustrated question kept nudging at me as I watched: are these really the most interesting utopian visions we could dream up?

There are admittedly some nice pieces (the word nice chosen here precisely for its very bland variety of praise). ‘The Presentation’, created by Thomas Eccleshare, Josh Roche and director Marmion, is a witty interpretation of perfection in our material culture, showing us Utopia as Steve Jobs might have imagined it, shiny and pocket-sized, but there is little depth beneath the slick cleverness. There is also a startling moment in Chi Onwurrah’s gameshow-inspired ‘Humanity’ when one character unexpectedly reveals the selflessness that human beings are capable of, while Janice Okoh’s vision of a world where medical science has been perfected and death is purely by choice is one of the more compelling scenarios.

One of the most fascinating, thought-provoking and disturbing scenes is not produced by any of the collection of writers, but instead by another dangerous utopian dreamer. Partway through the second half, we are confronted with a rousing election speech stuffed with rhetoric promising a better future – we half expect Obama’s mantra of “yes we can”. But with a startling sideswipe of anti-Semitism, this vision is smashed and it becomes horribly clear just whose words these really are. It is a stark, extreme reminder that one man’s idea of paradise is another’s vision of hell, and also that utopia and dystopia can be just a hair’s width apart.

As this overlong creation nears its end, however, there is the danger that intellectual investigation is abandoned in favour of emotional release. While the regrets of a now elderly ex-politician and the poignant attempts of a widow to “make the best” of her situation with the aid of a bit of over-50s zumba add moments of tenderness, they seem also to dilute the evening’s purpose. Fortunately Simon Stephens’ beautifully simple speech, spoken between the six actors, is suffused with enough grounded normality – the simple dream of drinking without getting a hangover, or of finding the perfect cup of coffee – to stall the decline into trite sentimentality.

Thinking back over the production, my complaints are admittedly not so much to do with this piece of theatre as it stands alone. It is frequently amusing and occasionally intriguing; it draws committed and energetic performances from its cast, particularly a sparkling Laura Elphinstone; it flirts playfully with form; there is a bubble machine, which tends to immediately raise most performances a few notches in my book. It is rather Utopia’s failure to meet the potential of its fascinating premise that makes it such a staggering disappointment. The level to which this wastes a brilliant concept makes me almost angry.

I can’t help but feel that many of the production’s problems arise not from its concept, which is an undeniably intriguing one, but from the way in which it has been assembled. As contributor Eccleshare politely and diplomatically hinted at when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, creating a co-authored show by having those authors each write in isolation is a tricky process. Had I not known about the technique of piecing this together, I think I would still have suspected a lack of dialogue between the writers. Utopia never really feels like a conversation.

I wonder if a truly collaborative approach (by which I mean bringing the contributors together at the writing table and even in the rehearsal room, shaping the piece while writing it) might have produced something far more interesting, as it is often when different utopias collide that the most fascinating discussions occur – a fact that Marmion and Roberts surely recognise, considering their central aim to provoke debate. It seems, then, an odd choice to have pieced together the show in the way that they have done, creating separate entities, smashing these apart and gluing their jagged edges together.

When mixed with the text of historical and literary utopias, the two directors have a deluge of content to channel into a finished piece, which seems partly to be the point but also makes for an inevitably messy production. Marmion and Roberts’ project is still to be admired for its aim and ambition alone; it is a beguiling idea, and one that is given a fittingly democratic treatment by mingling so many voices, if not entirely successfully. Perhaps, just like its subject, any attempt to tackle the concept of Utopia without isolating a single vision of perfection is doomed to fail.

In the end, it all just feels like a bit of a shame. Look at how good we could have made it, Utopia tries to say. Yes, quite.

Utopia

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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?”