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Living Newspaper: A Counter Narrative. Edition 1- The Royal Court, London

Reviewer: Louise Burns

Writers: Miriam Battye, Amir Gudarzi, Nazareth Hassan, Matilda Ibini, Sonia Jalaly, Jasmine Lee-Jones, Suhaiymah Manzoor-Khan, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Katherine Soper, Chris Thorpe, Temi Wilkey, and Daniel York Loh

The Living Newspaper is a blended form of news and theatre. Historically, it emerged out of an immediate social crisis. This Royal Court performance is inspired by the 1930s American arts programme that evolved out of the Great Depression. Commissioning plays that responded to current issues, the Federal Theatre Project was a lifeline for unemployed theatre artists. The origins in fact stretch back to the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, where its aim was to respond to the constant flow of propaganda and (mis)information. With Living Newspaper, the Royal Court has succeeded in both these intentions.

Working with over 60 writers, six editions will be produced. For Edition 1, in 90 minutes our chaotic year is assimilated into song, written word, art installations and satire. The 15 pieces are themed around editorials, dating columns, and weather bulletins. There is even a horoscope. Like a newsroom, creatives work quickly. Writing deadlines by Tuesday, rehearsal on Wednesday, and performance on Thursday with scripts in hand. The outcome strikes the right tone of urgency, and although at times still a work-in-progress or with some stale references (Trump has a presence, but no Biden or Kamala Harris), this creatively curated evening celebrates new writing.

There are limited tickets to watch in person, but a digitally captured edition is produced for the rest of us to experience from home. A promenade format invites audiences into the much-missed spaces of the Jerwood theatre, downstairs bar, and bookstore, as well as behind the scenes to private rehearsal rooms and basements. The show opens in the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, with one of the strongest performances of the evening. Front Page (written collaboratively by Miriam Battye, Nazareth Hassan, Matilda lbini, Somalia Nonyé Seaton, Katherine Soper, Chris Thorpe and Daniel York Loh) captures the year in the form of music and song. The stage is stacked with jumbled piles of flight cases, those used to transport theatre equipment. The atmosphere is that of a found performance space. A street music gig combined with familiar calls of Evening Standard news venders in busy commuter rush hour. Set to the cool beats of soul, jazz and RnB electro, composed by Welsh musician Eädyth, news headlines and commentary are transformed into biting satire. “Locked Down. Boris leaves the north to fend for themselves. Starve them of resources and hope they might eat themselves”.  

Another particularly strong piece for its excellent writing sits in a slot called The Long Listen (a nod to longer newspaper editorial pieces). Who Cuts The Cake by Amir Gudarzi is a commentary on global power and injustice through the metaphor of a children’s birthday party visiting the British Museum. The children pepper their teacher with questions about displays: “How did these all get here? Why are there so many? Why are these people dead? Did anybody ask them if they wanted to leave their country”? Performers Sophie Stone, Irfan Shamji, Michele Austin and Amaka Okafor sit on black cubes like exhibits in a gallery, holding coloured balloons. The story periodically cuts to a boat of refuges and actor Amaka Okafor holds up a yellow balloon. With a simple choreographed wave of her arm, the balloon transforms into a small boat at sea caught in high waves with people in need of help.

Most pieces are performed, while others take the form of an art installation with the artist’s voiceover. Con-troll Room by Katherine Soper, while not immediately clear in message, takes us to the subbasement of the Royal Court. The camera pans around piles of monitors, televisions and recording equipment. This might be a commentary on #MeToo, or media power or fake news as we listen to the fragmented voices of two girls discussing Epstein, media bias and who is making money from coronavirus.

The most poignant of the installations is Obituaries by Jasmine Lee- Jones. It blurs a line between fact and fiction and is a moving tribute to the loss of too many lives this year. A shaky handheld camera pans down a long set of stairs to a candle lit vigil for a woman called Fay. The Order of Service reveals a real photograph and on the staircase wall we read snippets of information about this much loved mother and grandmother. “She didn’t want people to know she was poor”; “She slept in Kennington Tube Station during the blitz”; “She knew where this theatre was”.

There is humour too with Sonia Jalaly’s Agony Aunt, perplexed by a question concerning scotch eggs and Nazareth Hassan’s Cartoon (of the week), which is particularly good fun because of actor Ragevan Vasan’s sharp wit and improvised interactions with the audience while calling for suggested captions to his speech bubbles.

A bonus is that after watching the digital edition, you are sent “the zine”, a post show programme. It shares the playwright’s text as well as additional content and drawings that accompany the evening: A celebration of the collaborative effort and talent of our arts industry.

It has been a difficult year. Many of us are looking for joy and escape, but meanwhile the world has not stopped. The Royal Court’s strength is reminding us of this. Zainab Hasan greets us on the front steps of the theatre as the audience first enter: We are not here to be persuaded of anything. This is a space for conversation.

Edition 1 available to watch here until Sun 20 December 2020


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