While many productions have been postponed in the last year, the effect on community theatre has probably been least discussed with the inability to gather in groups having a major impact on the outreach and engagement programmes of theatres across the country. Several of the London venues have reputed community projects working with groups who live and work in the vicinity of the theatre or in one of its partnership institutions. The National Theatre’s Public Acts initiative has brought well-received interpretations of Shakespeare and Brecht to its main stages, the Almeida Theatre has a number of community response projects that engage with its main shows while the Donmar Warehouse was due to launch its first Donmar Local production before the pandemic which was instead premiered as an online production on Saturday.
Written by Nina Segal and directed by Joseph Hancock, ASSEMBLY is a 70-minute production created with residents and workers in the boroughs of Camden and Westminster considering what a future might look like and the limits of human endeavour. Streamed from 16 UK locations, this inaugural play mixes a semi-dystopian style with an increasingly surreal, fantasy approach to consider the impact of climate change, the difficulties of consensus decision-making and the fallacy that the future is something that can be controlled.
Segal’s increasingly strange story begins with the appointment of a Citizens Assembly given a remit to decide what comes next, to design an unlimited vision for the future together as chosen representatives of humanity – their first democratically agreed act being to adjourn the meeting until everyone is individually furnished with a cup of tea and a biscuit or toast, a humorous observation about people’s priorities that becomes characteristic of ASSEMBLY’s observational and surrealist comedy. The split screen effect employed to show various cups of tea and coffee being made and custard cream packets being opened adds nicely to the effect.
As the ten contributors begin to debate what to keep with suggestions raging from houses and paths to marmalade and disco balls, Segal’s concept seems focused on the silliness and triviality of human thinking. Yet, the frame nods to plays like Kafka’s The Trial and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People which focus on the attempt to fit complex and varied humanity into inflexible institutional processes, where characters attempt to work within or fight against a system that will ultimately consume or overtake them. These early scenes in ASSEMBLY have some of that same quality as people with opposing perspectives try and fail to see beyond the here and now to conceive an entirely different world, and instead are draw to the familiar.
It leads to some interesting early debates which the play addresses in a slightly haphazard way as characters question whether existing structures and basic requirements for food and shelter will be the same in the future, wonder what is so wrong with the present and think about the nature of utopia and whether it should be an aspirational ideal for their task. There are also questions about the implementation of this future, whether it can be achieved bloodlessly, without some form of revolution and whether the group should approach the design from the perspective of what to include or what to leave out.
The inability to think beyond the status quo and create radical alternative solutions is a common failing in change management projects where sweeping away every structure, working practice and system is often inconceivable to those who have worked within them. So these are really engaging scenes which Segal’s show could think about more broadly and potentially expand in a future iteration that could explore the failings of humanity and its limited scope for genuine innovation when given a blank piece of paper.
The second half of ASSEMBLY is far stranger and from the point at which a blood-stained polar bear joins the meeting as a ‘citizen’ the show never quite regains its equilibrium as Segal heads in a different direction entirely, creating a Creatures Assembly that includes natural resources such as a glacier, a heatwave and the wind, with mice, a bee and a plant who consort to disrupt the increasingly fraught human meeting and occupy the building themselves. This new cataclysmic strain is more straightforward in its comment on the effect of climate change where the angry interactions between different elements focuses on melting, flooding and burning as the inevitable outcomes of the future.
While these sections feel a little unfocused and may be harder to follow depending on how jaunty or surreal you like your theatre, they usefully note that there is more than just a human future at stake which requires broader input and consideration. But the play is joined together by a strand of Future News which neatly satirises the media’s approach to disaster reporting with few positives, while the reporter creates on air conflict between phone-in guests by encouraging inflammatory opinions and extremism, later broadcasting from a warzone as a natural disaster sweeps through the future.
A conclusion involving a polar bear baby, the universe and a lingering sense of ambiguity is partially satisfying and a little wistful. ASSEMBLY could, however, return to some of those early questions about the inevitability of violence, the existential comfort of utopian ideals and the failure of democratic consensus more clearly to reinforce the ending by joining up the seemingly fruitless attempt to impose ‘order’ on the process of creating a future in the early scenes with the limited power and grand naivety of humanity to control nature and fate.
It has been noted many times how progressive digital theatre has become in the last few months, moving away from the limited Zoom box visual to create more integrated backdrops, visual fluidity and immersion in the story to try to overcome the distance between performers and viewers. For ASSEMBLY, director Hancock employs some interesting techniques to give the film a colourful and memorably heightened style, building on the split screen idea used in the tea-making interlude to include hotspots through which characters can speak, integrating graphics and animation and using costume to create a consistency and distinction that is full of craft.
Cardboard is designer Frankie Bradshaw’s material of choice used to convey basic instructions to the audience with chapter headings drawn in marker pen that signal the changing nature of the assembly, but it is also employed in a more sophisticated design with a small city created entirely from cardboard comprising the main classically-designed town hall with Corinthian columns, a rising motorway covered in cars, high rise buildings, factories and a giant antenna. It is a beautiful piece of model-making to neatly represent the impending destruction of existing institutions and structures.
This versatile material is equally integral to Bradshaw’s vivid costumes which dominate the second half of the show as natural elements, creatures and astral objects become the focus. Much work has clearly gone into the creation of headdresses and hats that help to personify these creations including an excellent sunflower shaped structure with yellow petals and leaves that fit around the face of the actor in the centre, a white cloud headpiece with vivid blue raindrops suspended from its edges and a fiery orange wig for the heatwave. Bradshaw’s work on the planets is equally impressive with a fascinator made of planet rings containing a wire solar system, a silver, sleepy crescent moon and a bright, dominant sun.
It is the creativity and visual style of ASSEMBLY that really impresses, placing these cleverly representative costumes in Andrzej Goulding’s video settings to suggest the starry night sky or the swirling winds of a tornedo when the glacier, wind and heatwave get too close. Characters are also placed around the screen in different patterns, seen through what seem to be burn-holes in the atmosphere while Bradshaw’s town model is shown either in the centre of the screen or in the corner, the Assembly Hall always the focus of the characters.
Hancock controls all of these elements with skill, capturing the changing tones in Segal’s story as the plainer Citizen’s Assembly sections evolve into the colourful convention of creatures and eventually to the destruction of the known world represented in darker tones with orange light, smoke effects and a calming white and purple tone at the conclusion. That visually the show evolves consistently and finds a storytelling advantage in its new digital setting is one of ASSEMBLY‘s most enjoyable aspects, leaving the audience to wonder if it could have been staged as well in person.
ASSEMBLY has a large company playing the ten original members of the Citizen Assembly and the mysterious convener as well as doubling later as representatives of the natural world and wider solar system. Each commits to their performances despite having rehearsed online and having to give their first live show via YouTube. Actors Angie Lieu, Brian McGinnis, David Cunningham, Jenneba Sie-Jalloh, Josiah Phoenix, Karen Walkden, Martin Fisher, Michael Turney, Patrick Burrows, Paul Ringo, Pen Riley, Rita Barry, Sadhbha Odufuwa-Bolger, Stephen Rooney, Ubah Egal, Victoria Valcheva and Youyangg Song are particularly effective in the early scenes where they fail to design a consistent or especially radical future, capturing the difficulty of large meetings with a couple of louder voices driving the debate as conversations become increasingly fractious.
It is an area ripe for expansion where greater characterisation is possible as individuals represent their own specific small-scale interests or fail to balance the needs of an international community with their inability to conceive a vision of the future divorced from their fear of change. Each of the elements and creatures has a distinct personality from the furious glacier whose melting form creates conflict with the heatwave to the frustrated little mice whose size is ignored by the water-preserving river and wider group who want to abolish the litter that keeps them alive. It’s a strong ensemble who embrace their roles and relish their performance time.
With a couple of brief technical disruptions during the premiere, this first production from the Donmar Local company shows a lot of promise, combining an enthusiastic group of performers with a creative team eager to explore technical boundaries in the presentation of meaningful stories.
ASSEMBLY premiered on the Donmar Warehouse YouTube Channel on 20 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.