About halfway through our conversation, Kieran Hurley tells me a brilliant and quietly moving anecdote about The Bloody Great Border Ballad, a show which Northern Stages ran nightly at its Edinburgh home of St Stephens this year. Each night, the show began with two artists picked from a group of six (of which Hurley was one) performing their take on a ‘border ballad’ before handing over to an ‘epic ballad’. Here, a new artist would add one verse to a growing ballad each night to create a winding, complex story about a child born on the eve of Scottish independence. Before each show, Hurley tells me, the cast would get together to rehearse briefly in order to go over bits which needed clarifying. Then, he says, “we would get to the bit when the new balladeer would read their bit. And what I realised actually was that the rehearsals in themselves were like a céilidh [a gathering of people each presenting a party piece, or ‘turn’] … everyone had their bit that they did and we knew the bit that the community had brought to the table, and then we’d welcome in a new guest into the ‘living room’ where our céilidh was happening and everyone would hush and turn to the new guest because the new guest was going to do a ‘turn’.”
This observation is typical of the passion with which Hurley discusses ideas of community and mass gathering throughout the duration of our phone call. It’s a theme running throughout his work, often made up of “stories that describe, desire for and journey towards some kind of understanding of what solidarity might look like against the backdrop of a world that is increasingly individualistic”. His show, BEATS, for example, which is “a coming-of-age story about a 15-year-old boy” set against the backdrop of the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 outlawing music with “sounds wholly or predominantly characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”, considers how an ostensibly hedonistic and non-political rave culture made “someone in power [feel] threatened enough to legislate against it” due to its “dangerous political potential”. As the possibilities of protest and dissent are threatening to become fruitless and stifled against the backdrop of neoliberalism, Hurley’s work is increasingly interested in exploring ideas of “people – and particularly young people – claiming and taking ownership of space collectively and temporarily.” Following a representation of an anti-capitalist demonstration in Hitch and preceding the riot in Chalk Farm, BEATS (which premiered last year) asks questions about “a hedonistic sub-culture that then becomes politicised because the way of life was being legislated against, becoming politically radical in some way.”
Like many people dissatisfied with and angry about the increased focus on the individual in the years since Thatcher and Reagan, Hurley believes that “getting together as a polity, being together as a group of people, is always in itself a really important political response to the way the world is.” And though this is said as a response to a question from me about the communal aspects of rave culture and its connection to mass protest, Hurley points out that theatre performs a similar function: “Theatre is a place which – when we get it right – provides an ideal context for a discussion around some of those things by virtue of kind of being it.”
This is why BEATS is an event which happens within a theatre. Though it is “smokey” and “ravey” and contains “gestures towards a particular type of aesthetic, the whole thing would fall on its feet if you did it in a tent in a field because people would want something different from that event and would engage with that event with a different type of focus. If you want that type of collective attention, go to a rave.” Here again, we come back to ideas of space and ownership, because what the aesthetic of BEATS does, complete with disc- and video-jockeys, is to create “a space for the story to live in”. Like the inhabitants of the world evoked by Hurley’s text, the text itself takes ownership of the space in which it lives in order to “gesture towards and illustrate [rave conditions] and help scribe a particular type of energy and a particular type of context in a way that’s really theatrical. So it’s not like we’re trying to make you feel like you’re in a rave, but we are trying to push at the limits of what we can do in a theatre to help you imagine that particular context.”
This idea of contexts is one we keep returning to. Sometimes, for example, “being at a rave can be an important political or politicising experience in terms of how you relate to people in that space and what that space might then mean”. Elsewhere, however, “being at a rave can also be a horrible, stinking mess, and shit things can happen (I’m not romantically suggesting that if people just go out and take some MDMA then we’ll overthrow the Tories and there will forever be some kind of global utopia – that’s so much not what’s going on in the show)”. Similarly, Legally Blonde: The Musical has “a huge amount of politics going on in the relationship between the audience and the work… along economic lines, along the product that you’re buying, along personal lines or representation lines or gender lines. And those political relationships along all those lines don’t just disappear in different contexts, they’re not just there when people say ‘This is political theatre’, and they don’t go away when people stop calling it that. They’re there. They’re just there, all the time.” Even The Bloody Great Border Ballad, which saw Hurley articulating his belief that “an independent Scotland doesn’t necessarily need to mean a dis-United Kingdom in any negative sense” to a predominantly English audience in a Scottish venue, was full of contextual complexity.
Following the tour of BEATS, Hurley returns to Scotland to continue work on Rantin, a piece made with another theatre practitioner and two musicians which is “about trying to create a botched, incomplete, fragmented patchwork of a nation and the impossibility of there being a single idea of what nationhood is” before collaborating with Cora Bissett (another Border Ballad contributor) on a show about the late musician Martyn Bennett, who created “amazing electronic compositions that drew on samples from the folk tradition”. Interestingly, though, a lot of Hurley’s work to date has been described variously as “charming”, “hopeful” and “enjoyable”, but he suggests he’s “beginning to feel like that’s not wholly an adequate response to the way the world is. So my response to the question ‘Do I have to feel like it’s enjoyable for an audience?’ is increasingly ‘No’. It might be that something being valuable might be different from that, really, which whilst still being utterly respectful of the audience might also feel at times quite difficult. And so I guess I have some increasingly angry work to come out of me over the next few years, work the critics will not like. Work that will be hard work. But that’s not a promise or anything.”
BEATS by Kieran Hurley is at Soho Theatre, London from 14-26 October (under 26s and concessions tickets £12.50) and then touring from 16 November onwards. See the BEATS website for details.