Image credit: Ashley Good
What do you get when you cross the poetry of William Blake, a German fairy tale, the London riots and an exploration of what it means to be a man? What if this narrative fusion was played out through original music, text and movement, by a company of international collaborators? Well, if you’re not intrigued to find out, I suspect you might be unconscious. Either way, Awake Projects are about to land in The North Wall, Oxford, and I for one predict a riot.
Speaking to Lucy Maycock, playwright and Artistic Director of The North Wall, I was intrigued to discover how such a diverse range of styles and subject matter had been merged. The answer, it seems, is in an atmosphere of experimentation. Working with Awake Project’s ensemble cast, Maycock and Director Christopher Sivertsen used R&D sessions to create their unique combined style, and it was established from the outset that neither were at all “interested in naturalism”.
While Maycock describes herself as a words and books person, she loved Sivertsen’s previous work, which favoured expressionistic, music and movement-based drama. They found that rhythm was their common denominator, meaning that, “we can give actors the chance to say very real things to each other, but because of the underlying rhythm, we can then pull out and effortlessly move into something non-verbal”. It was for this reason, she says, that rhyme become a core component of her text, and she wrote the fairytale Iron Hans in the form of an epic poem; “which is a bit grandiose of me, but there we go”.
The result of this collaboration was Song of Riots, which opens in Oxford this month before heading out on a European tour. According to Maycock, the piece aims to address a vital question of our times; “what do we do about the alienated young male, who doesn’t have enough opportunities, or mentors, or jobs, or goodwill, who’s feeling disenfranchised?” At the heart of the story are two men. One, a prince, is attempting to become the king his father wishes him to be, while the other is a young boy from the inner-city who is not receiving the guidance he needs.
Would it not, I wonder, have been easier to write a naturalistic play about the two characters? When we speak Maycock is in the middle of a hectic tech week, and concedes that the answer is probably yes. She adds, however, that there is little point in “ever doing anything that you already know how to do.” What might pose a challenge when crafting a cohesive narrative, ultimately adds an element of universality to the piece. “I decided to use those myths and archetypes to make it a story that could take place anywhere, on any street, to any young man”.
But why Blake in particular? Does it matter if the audience aren’t familiar with his work? Maycock is clear on the fact that it’s the poet’s spirit which informs the piece, and there is no requirement to already be a fan of his work. “Blake was a natural born rioter,” she says, “and that’s a good thing. To me he was the working man’s poet hero. He wasn’t educated, he had to struggle to have his voice heard. His poems deal with what human beings could be if they weren’t fettered by society’s expectations or prejudices.”
For this reason, Maycock argues that “natural rioter” Blake is the perfect fit for the tone of the play. Instead of a song of innocence or experience, we have a Song of Riots, and the team is clear that the word is being used “in a positive way. We’re not just looking at the riot that destroys things. Sometimes people have to shake off the ‘mind-forged manacles’ that Blake writes about and they have to have their moment where they really let rip. It’s what Durkheim calls “collective effervescence” – those moments when a population doesn’t rise up to destroy, but rather rises up to create something.”
Song of Riots is playing at The North Wall, Oxford, until 18 April, in Västerås Sweden 27-30 May and at Tou Scene in Stavanger Norway 3-4 June. For more information and tickets, see their website.