As theatre eyes largely turn to Edinburgh, several prominent venues are giving over their spaces to community and student projects that showcase the important outreach and engagement work that has been happening all year. The National Theatre has its Public Acts scheme which this year heads to Yorkshire for a new production entitled The Doncastrian Chalk Circle and next week the Donmar begins The Trials, a climate activism piece developed through its Local and Young Associates programme that builds on ASSEMBLY performed digitally last year. But first, the Young Vic celebrated the quarter century of Taking Part, its community and schools engagement strand with a week-long series of promenade performance dedicated to the theatre’s physical home on The Cut.
Combining local residents and schools from Southwark and Lambeth, Of the Cut is a fascinating multi-narrative, multimedia production taking place at the Young Vic and in its neighbouring spaces, moving audiences physically along this road but also through time as it sets out to explore the history and meaning of The Cut, as well as its importance as a place of community and creativity. Its purpose is to emphasise the importance of this strip of shops, restaurants and theatres as a focal point for community interaction and engagement down the generations.
But it also argues that theatre itself is both the starting and end point as well as the tool for these kinds of collaborative endeavour, that the Young Vic must inspire community and reflect it in equal measure. And in the coming together of different voices, ages and ideas through dramatic scenes, film and semi-immersive experiences, Of the Cut is an innovative and warmly engaging example of theatre outreach in action.
Created by Yasmin Joseph in collaboration with the company which includes over 20 performers, this 1 hour and 45-minute show is structured around a series of scenes that can be experienced in any order, book-ended by two segments based in the Maria studio space of the Young Vic. Joseph also wrote J’Ouvert, one of the premiere plays that reopened the Harold Pinter Theatre in Sonia Friedman’s RE: EMERGE season alongside Anna X and Walden. Also filmed for the BBC, J’Ouvert was a community-focused play set at the Notting Hill Carnival which also examined multicultural neighbourhoods brought together by a singular event through which individual and self-knowledge and collective understanding emerge.
Of the Cut has similar themes, using an emergency scenario that draws different groups together to solve a problem while simultaneously showcasing the community subsets, businesses and personalities that make this area a distinct but welcoming place – a theme that interests Joseph, considering the interplay between the changing urban face of London which brings tourism and commercial endeavour to exist alongside the experience of long-term residents that bring consistency and connection to those who have gone before and the geographical uniqueness that builds loyalty and investment.
The first notable aspect of Of the Cut are the number of locations in which the show takes place, a logistical feat not just in safely moving the audience from place to place but in negotiating with multiple venues and different kinds of enterprises who have made space for this endeavour – proof enough that the Young Vic is plugged into its immediate community. From the local St Andrew’s Church to a table by The Windmill pub, a nearby courtyard restaurant and the entire foyer of Southwark College, it is no small job to construct a show of this scale – a production, it should be noted, offered entirely for free to audience members. The absence of the Old Vic is notable however, an equally valuable part of this strip offering another place for creative encounters within the same community.
To have managed numerous separate performances over several days last week is impressive, relying on considerable good will and months of planning to facilitate. And the experience for the audience is seamless, divided into two more manageable groups of around 15 people who experience the pre-prepared scenes in a different order, coming together at the beginning, in the middle and at the end for defined experiences. Each group is also given a manager and a lead performer who act as principal guide as well as a couple of ushers to ensure everyone crosses the road safely but also to maintain the narrative thread, directing the viewer through the story as a tag team of actors provide links to the next space and scenario.
And the result is extremely effective, convincingly moving to different perspectives within the central story as well as the longer term, evolving view of The Cut itself and its residents. Meeting a local knitting circle, a deconstructed pie seller, market traders and construction workers, the vibrancy of this street is reflected in the somewhat fantastical story about a neighbourhood trying to balance an identity shaped by its past while being sufficiently open to all the things it could be in the future.
A key concern here is gentrification and the arrival of generic chains that denude the area of its distinctiveness. Joseph and her collaborators are not so crass as to name this directly but instead choose an allegory through which the audience can draw its own conclusions. The synonym Joseph selects instead is ‘magic,’ a secret source of which has long existed underneath The Cut, gently infecting all who live and work there with a special and unique power. An accidental leak sends this magic – depicted as plumes of coloured smoke emerging from the Young Vic and other places on film – into the air where the intensity of its undiluted form creates dangerous levels of exposure and means people beyond the immediate vicinity will experience it as well.
It is a light-hearted concept, one that is neatly and consistently fed through the production, from the Victorian market stall traders who first introduce the notion and explain their role in burying the concentrated magic in the first place, all the way to diverse contemporary residents agonising over the future without it. And as the audience moves between these stories, the open secret of the existence of magic underpins the purpose of each scene, even with warnings en route about items that may magically appear during the performance or the portals that might take character-leaders away unexpectedly (to perform for the other group). Sainsbury’s on The Cut is marked out as a particularly powerful doorway to a magical realm – which anyone who has ever needed an emergency sandwich before a Young Vic evening performance will already know!
But all of this levity does have some serious political and social points to make about the formation and maintenance of community. These do not spring fully formed but, as Joseph’s production shows, come partly from investment in spaces for like-minded people to engage such as the knitting circle encountered in St Andrew’s Church, partly through heritage and local history connections with those who came before, as the expensive pie shop on the site of a fish and chip emporium from decades before suggests, but also in the throwing together of people with different needs, backgrounds and lifestyles as displayed by a group of neighbours in a close quarters courtyarded block performed in Southwark College’s large foyer. One of the big set pieces of this production, how community ‘magic’ is created is a major concern as the day-to-day business of living harmoniously (and disharmoniously) side-by-side gives way to notions of collective dreaming, enjoying what they have and deciding to hold the responsibility for it and power to change it in their own hands rather than relying on external, non-invested groups, like the local council – if you want community, Jospeh is saying, you have to make it for yourself and then keep it going, arguably precisely what the Young Vic is doing with Of the Cut and Taking Part.
So what does all this mean for the Young Vic? Well, it has a crucial role to play in the creation of community, both as a place of engagement, a focal point for schools, residents and young adults to congregate but also as a means to expand and reflect on the world beyond SE1. Part of Of the Cut includes a group of school pupils filmed arriving at the theatre and being taught by their straightlaced but exasperated teacher how to interact in the auditorium with comedic results. But as the filmed actors become live performers in the Maria studio, they eventually hear the building speak to them in multiple voices, expanding on all the stories, places and people that have ever been contained within its walls. That is the ‘magic’ that theatre can offer, perspective and inclusion which, as this sequence demonstrates, by breaking down barriers to participation for those who would never set foot in a theatre or may think even the building is not for them, these kinds of initiatives can be transformative.
Theatre after all brings people together but it also takes them to unexpected places physically, intellectually, politically and emotionally, and Joseph’s play has all of that, the community comes together and the audience is transported. The balance for the Young Vic is in representing its community on its everyday stages, so that everyone who comes to a show can see an aspect of themselves reflected back at them, but also in then transporting the whole room to places they never imagined, and in reality will almost certainly never go to. The most resounding message of Of the Cut is that community is not a static state so how do you maintain a collective essence while allowing it to grow into something more?
In the Young Vic’s main house, Chasing Hares is about the power of a story to inspire and upend the structures we take for grants so this summer programme of community and student productions is an opportunity to see things a little differently, to shake up what we think theatre can be and what it should do. Joseph’s Of the Cut is ultimately about what theatre means to a community, the chance to see it, make it and perform in it as well as have it respond to who you are and what we can be. And the Taking Part team are absolutely right, there is real magic in that.