You can tell a lot about the confidence of a theatre by its programming and never more so than in the degree of community and youth engagement it undertakes. The Almeida Theatre, then, couldn’t be more exciting and following a highly acclaimed Autumn / Winter season with rave reviews for both Tammy Faye and its current production of A Streetcar Named Desire, the stage is given over for two Sunday evenings to the Almeida Youth Company, presenting two brand new 50-minute plays written for and by a vast company of young performers under the direction of Abi Falase. Working with two established theatremakers – Tatenda Shamiso and Rafaella Marcus – this evening of performance is a true collaboration, one that showcases the Almeida’s talent development ecosystem.
Often, the work of young companies is confined to the tricky summer holiday period when much of the theatre community decamps to Edinburgh and no one risks opening a major show. Last summer, both the Donmar Warehouse (The Trials) and the Young Vic (Of the Cut) offered their spaces to works created by their youth and community programmes, two highly successful concepts that explored production techniques and site-specific opportunities to celebrate the venues that nurtured them. Now, the Almeida Theatre has taken the concept a step further, tying its Youth Company performance to its current show with both The Village and Rush directly responding to themes and concepts raised by Tennessee Williams’s play – a smart and insightful decision that creates a future model for its community engagement activities.
The first performance of this double bill is The Village, a deeply political piece guided by Shamiso that draws on notions of utopian ideals in Williams’s play and the ways in which dreams and reality are often sacrificed at the point when old and new worlds collide. In this scenario, the young people of the UK have created a pilot society, designed and governed by themselves, an ideal place in which policies and State functions are provided by a Council of emancipated youth free to set their own priorities and budget using devolved powers given to them by the adult Government in the outside world. It is an interesting and well-worked premise, one that explores concepts of power, management, democracy and corruption within both the economic and physical limitations of the village they establish.
There are two particularly intriguing elements here that ultimately shape the direction this 50-minute piece takes; the first is the geographical boundary of the village itself, housed in an abandoned seaside town which instantly evokes notions of dereliction, decline and, importantly, distance from the real seat of power in London. Although the physical location is never specified, this created commune is clearly on the margins of the UK, as close to the edge of the land mass as it is possible to get, and thus without connection to much of the country. Are the young people being set up to fail deliberately while similarly isolated from any kind of wider connection that could add momentum to their cause?
But this is also a piece about the limitations of the space they are given to govern, a physical patch of ground that only affects those living within it. The Government of the day has not awarded them total power for all young people in the country allowing their needs to be met by this group, and instead grants them jurisdiction over those living within the boundaries of the youth State. As youth members ‘age out’ they are replaced. It is this contested physical limitation that drives much of the drama that follows and it is in this space where those notions of utopia and reality must co-exist. Naturally more than one kind of betrayal occurs, not least in the relationship between central Government and this small pilot site with little to gain from its shackled independence. The youth have been given their dream but in a place that in every physical and geographical sense will fail them, undermining the regime in much the same way that Blanche’s fantasies betray her when the price of realising them proves too brutal.
The second important element of this society is that is was created from mass protest, a violent and energetic opener in which 20 performers storm the stage in masks that obscure their faces. But a society created from revolution and built on foundations of anarchy is doomed to fail when attempts to reimpose rules and a form of governed democracy become compromised by elitism and mass disillusionment. This is the main driver of The Village, the growing disenchantment of the people which is escalated upwards to the seemingly ineffective rule of its Council. That further protest and regime change are subsequently mooted naturally stem from the State foundations, and, in subtle reference to works like Animal Farm (not to mention recent Government scandals), frustrations about the meaning of equality play out across this story.
There are real complexities here though with an understanding that rules and leadership are far more complex than they may appear. While the Council is not sympathetically portrayed, the difficulty of balancing the economy, food shortages and negotiating their independent status with the existing Government proves troublesome. Similarly, there is much advocacy for a newly created Education system based on student interest but an equal recognition that boundaries and regulations are necessary for a society to function which add nuance to what could have been an idealistic but naive concept of utopian democracy. That State failure seems inevitable never detracts from the hope everyone has for improving and achieving this idealised society regardless of the human behaviours that prevent it from happening.
The Village has a conventional theatrical approach, a linear story that, like The Trials, explores notions of young people bringing forward power to make decisions about the kind of future they want to build. Focusing that around the driver of new recruits being inducted as well as the ways in which this society tries to hide its struggles, to present its best self to the outside world through the presence of an (unseen) documentary film crew and social media manager are areas that could be expanded in a longer project. Yet, this is a 50-minute production filled with interesting questions about that tricky space between fantasy and truth.
The second performance, shaped by Marcus, is a quite different proposition although it too considers a place between dreams and reality. Set during a single night at a fairground, Rush is about wistful lost love, the pursuit of idealised happiness and co-dependency in various forms. The Company create a last night atmosphere in this piece, of a world or way of living that the various inter-related characters already know has ended but who chose to suspend their disbelief for a single night in order to recapture the innocence of their connection one last time. By morning, everything will change, particularly as one of the protagonists is about to leave the group forever, bound for a grown-up life abroad.
Linking to Williams’s creation of characters fooling themselves about who they are and what their future will be, Rush also considers the last-chance desperation of individuals pursuing a fantasy that only takes them further away from themselves. This takes places across two groups of friends, each containing one half of a couple who dated for a year before their relationship fell apart, and both coincidentally, or perhaps deliberately, in the same place for this one night where there is one last chance to set things right. What takes this away from rom-com territory is that the desire for reconciliation is one-sided, a scenario that nods to the changing connection between Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire, that places protagonists Leah and Toni on opposite trajectories.
Under Marcus’s guidance, there is a dreamlike quality to this scenario aided by Fraser Craig’s romantic lighting design and Phoebe Shu-Ching Chan’s evocative costume choices. The setting is more Coney Island-like that Dreamland Margate, tapping into a very American notion of innocence that fairground rides and safe end of the pier spaces create. It feels like a warm summer night with characters dressed in shorts and crop tops or Hawaiian shirts, an easy, casual vibe where everyone wants to have a good time, and like the similar scene in Blood Brothers in which Micky, Edward and Linda go to the fair while the narrator casts doom over their unaffected joy, in Rush there are no thoughts of what’s to come.
The two friendship groups are well created but given slightly different structures, one in which Leah is too distracted by the possibility of finding Toni to fully appreciate her friends and the other in which Toni is fully absorbed in every moment of the evening unconcerned by the possibility of bumping into an ex they have emotionally left behind. The groups are loud and boisterous at times, fun-loving and cheeky, performed with energy by the Company who create a very credible connection between people with more than a decade of friendship to call upon, but are also in their early 20s and on the cusp of change.
To this, Rush adds some intriguing theatrical devices and movement sequences that focus on the existential pressures individuals are feeling that hide beneath the jaunty projection of happiness. Juxtaposing these monologues or philosophical reflections within the central story as characters talk about the momentary freedom offered by being in the Hall of Mirrors where you can evade the constriction of societal rules, or the claustrophobic smallness of the individual relative to the uncaring universe dampen the romance of the central scenario, and while these could have a stronger role in pulling out contrasting notes of potential ugliness at the funfair, the choreographed precision of the complex mirrors sequence is particularly effective.
Rush also has plenty of expansion potential, drilling further into Leah’s need to rekindle this defining romance and the willingness to sacrifice everything for its sake. Like Williams, the Company are exploring the cruelty of unrequited desire and of rejection about which these characters clearly have more to say in the aftermath of their meeting. Nonetheless like The Village, this 50-minute play probes the place between reality and fiction, where individual fantasy and hope are subsumed into a more satisfying collective.
These plays may not be the obvious responses to Streetcar that you might expect but are all the more interesting for it, and the development of contemporary work delving into the themes of Williams’s mighty play is well worth spending a Sunday night at the theatre. This model for youth participation is a promising one, filling a space between classic plays and audience engagement that is rich with possibility. Creating space for it in future programming will be the challenge but one that will offer rich rewards for a thriving creative culture.
The Village / Rush will be performed again at the Almeida Theatre on 22 January. Tickets at £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog