“Searching for Utopia never really ends – it’s stubborn in that way.” For Josh Roche, Assistant Director of, Utopia, a new writing project at Soho Theatre, “every hell or dystopia that people arrive at is led by an urge for utopia.”
Soho Theatre’s latest new writing project brings together an eclectic mix of talented writers, including Dylan Moran, Simon Stephens and Chi Onwurah MP, in order to question the notion of a perfect future. The project is a collaboration between Soho Theatre and Live Theatre, with Artistic Directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts at the helm.
“Max did A Walk On Part at The Arts Theatre,” says Roche. “That also played here and it’s a lot about disillusionment with New Labour – the passion at the start but the struggle to do the right thing. The idea for this show came as a response to dystopia – how do we make theatre that is aspirational and optimistic?” Utopia features visions that come from separate writers involved in the project. These visions arrive on stage as blueprints, which are then tried and tested via enactment by the six ‘fools’ who perform the many segments of the show.
“The show is two things,” explains Roche. “It started as a collaboration between different writers responding to one idea, so there’s a huge amount of variety between the narratives but then at the same time they are all present within this holding form of six fools trying to find Utopia. You can expect very separate approaches to an idea but at the same time you’re guided through the piece in a way that’s nice and honest. It’s very direct with the audience, engaging, light-hearted.”
On Sunday June 24, Soho Theatre also hosted Hub Utopia, an event in which emerging writers and artists responded to the brief set for the main Utopia production. “The Hub is our community of playwrights and theatre artists that we’re really interested in supporting and helping,” explains Dan Herd, Director of Hub Utopia and Artistic Associate at Soho Theatre. “We offer them spaces and scriptwriting consultations and many other things because we really want to develop their voices.”
Regular Hub nights allow Soho Theatre to commission its emerging artists to come up with short pieces, either around a specific theme or in relation to their current practice. Professional actors are called in and the events work as a combination platform and workshop for aspiring writers and artists. Soho Theatre Bar also functions as a space in which practitioners and spectators can meet, greet and discuss the ideas on offer.
“We put these Hub events on to give them that bit of learning that you can only get from seeing it onstage as opposed from sitting in a script consultation,” says Herd. “So because we had Utopia opening and because that came from the idea of proposing a perfect world, it made sense that the Hub responded to it. The event was conceived to see what these really exciting people could come up with for a drama set in a perfect world.”
It seems that the Hub artists responded to the brief with a variation to rival that featured in the main Utopia production. The pieces that arose ranged from dystopian comedy blues by Johnny and The Baptists, a sombre and poetic look at the fragile bliss of love through the eyes of Briony Kimmings and two sharp, witty two-hander plays by exciting up-and-coming writers, Joe Coelho and James Graham.
“There are an awful lot of plays submitted about how we’ve ruined the world and how that will lead to our downfall,” explains Herd. “Steve (Marmion) was interested in discovering the other argument. What could we have done right? What are the options? The other interesting thing is that by its nature, utopia is free from conflict, it moves along in flat lines. The tension is actually between the impossibility of utopia, which by definition is subjective, and the practical achievability of a perfect world.”
Subjectivity is clearly a central theme in the Utopia projects. The ultimate paradox in the concept of a perfect world is that any vision of utopia can just as easily become a dystopia, either for the visionary or for those upon who the ideals are thrust. The main production of Utopia features projected quotations from, among others, Adolf Hitler, in a bid to point out the subjective nature of the very concept of utopia. As Herd puts it: “If I want everyone to ride around on horses, there’s going to be someone who doesn’t like horses. For some people, the perfect world is a one-on-one thing about love and family, and finding perfection. For others it’s about solitude and being right in your head. For others it’s about changing society. You always run up against the brick wall of subjectivity but you want to smash through that subjectivity and say, ‘Why can’t we all just live together in harmony?’”
It’s easy to wonder about the creative relationship of the Utopia projects with the current social climate. Herd talks about the sense that “every day we are getting closer and closer to the furnace and that’s because of things our parents did and things we are doing, whether those things are economic, environmental, personal or social.” Roche and Herd both stress with urgency that it is important for young artists to see Utopia. “Our theatre’s not really about safe, smug pieces,” says Herd. “Utopia is a reflection of that. It’s a big, bold, brave statement.”
“I would encourage young directors and actors to see Utopia because it’s bold and it’s different,” urges Roche. “It’s different and it’s not in a distinct mould. You won’t be able to say it’s this kind of show or it’s that kind of show. It has an individual identity. It won’t be boxed or categorised and for that reason it should be seen.”
Utopia runs until 14 July at Soho Theatre. Tickets are available from sohotheatre.com/whats-on/utopia.
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Image credit: Soho Theatre