Writers: Zia Ahmed, Leo Butler, Guillermo Calderón, Nick Cassenbaum, E.V. Crowe, Maud Dromgoole, Nessah Muthy, Iman Qureshi, Marcelo dos Santos, Nina Segal, Dalia Taha, Joel Tan and Maya Zbib
Another richly creative iteration of the Royal Court’s Living Newspaper project, Edition 5 takes on issues such as British identity, Brexit and racial justice. An innovative response to the Covid crisis, the project explicitly draws upon ‘the radical history of the Federal Theatre Project of the US – an arts programme to mobilise and employ unemployed artists and theatre workers surfacing from the Great Depression’. Referencing (and often subverting) different formal elements of a newspaper, the segments also make ingenious use of different spaces within the Royal Court building, animating an otherwise shuttered space. Newspapers played such a pivotal part of the Brexit process, and it’s undoubtedly satisfying to see the form played with so freely, an answering back from often marginal voices.
This is particularly the case in scene / unscene (written by Zia Ahmed), which also unsettles any complacency felt by the liberal creative community, calling out the difficulties faced by both producers and actors of colour – the unspoken racial equation that counters an Asian playwright with a white dramaturg for instance. In Azadi, a piece by Iman Qureshi about the Muslim trans community, there’s a similar sense of untrammelled expression, of words usually softened for a white audience, left to stand in all their stark frustration. While the words were powerful, in both cases, however, the visual interpretations feel a little insufficient.
The visual elements are much stronger in The Front Page (A Slice of the Empire by Zia Ahmed, Nick Cassenbaum, E.V. Crowe, Iman Qureshi, Dalia Taha and Joel Tan) staged in the main auditorium and suitably splashy: an appealingly ramshackle musical number headed up by Le Gateau Chocolat, archly mocking the bromides that have come to define Britishness (‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’). Unabashedly didactic, the spirit of the Federal Theatre Project feels particularly strong here, and sits rather uneasily with our more cynical contemporary sensibilities. In Memoriam, written by Leo Butler, is perhaps more in keeping: a compact satire on the obituaries form, the mellifluous, Radio 4 tones of our host invokes the death of Debate and Nuance (that ‘child star of the Renaissance’). In a reference to the worrying changes afoot at the BBC, the show is abruptly taken over by a new high-energy host and a new name: Great Britain First.
The Museum of Agony by Maud Dromgoole is also effective. Squashed into the cloakroom, it’s an archive of ‘agony’ as understood in the looser sense of the Agony Aunt, and the piece takes us through the mundane objects that can become so symbolic. The Filofax representing the speaker’s jealousy of other people’s capacity to get control of their lives is relatively straightforward, but the seemingly humble celeriac becomes the catalyst for a complex stream of consciousness (financial precarity, and the veering between penny pinching and the loss of self-control that is its shadow). The sharpness of the writing is well matched by the comic instincts of the actor, Alana Jackson.
Jackson is also in fine form in the Cartoon of the Week, gardening tales for girl bosses, a tiny comic allegory which traces her character’s initial, lavish displays of generosity to her new employee, Simran Hunjun, quickly replaced with rabid jealousy. The floral delightfulness of the design is a neat metaphor for the confines of femininity (the absurd floral eyebrows a lovely touch), and the piece serves as cautionary tale about the limits of white feminism’s inclusivity towards women of colour. Another allegorical piece, but one that remains opaque, is the intriguing The tree, the leg and the axe by E.V. Crowe, slightly reminiscent of Sarah Kane in being both of our world but also not.
There are more expansive, and conventional theatrical satisfactions in Red by Guillermo Calderón, a monologue performed by Daniel Cerqueira. Set at the front desk – looking out at a grey Sloane Square, it’s a wistful European goodbye to London, understated but affecting. This End of the Year Thing by Maya Zbib has a similarly naturalistic feel, portraying a group of friends at a New Year’s Eve party in Lebanon. More successfully than Dalia Taha’s A Warning (set in Syria), this captures the sense of everyday life continuing in crisis, a necessary invocation of intimacy that counters the Western detachment towards distant lives. It’s something of a relief to see some skilful, relaxed interplay between a larger cast after all the smaller pieces, with Cerqueira and Laura Hanna proving to be particularly charismatic.
It’s a fascinating collection, and there’s no doubting the creativity of the writing, with issues of the day percolating throughout. The poetic freedom of the programming is genuinely striking: alongside the occasional didacticism, there is also a refreshing willingness to leave things unexplained and unresolved.
Runs here until 25 April 2021