Paul McCartney Is Dead takes place in a somewhat surreal and hazy dystopian future in which Libby (Louisa Coward), the last human-as-we-would-recognise-her sits down in an attempt to record the story of her life as a hermit with Paul McCartney (not the Beatle, but his namesake; played by Luke Surl) as best she can remember it before she gives in and abdicates her humanity as well. She is both aided and overshadowed by a second narrative which exists in the form of fragments of moments recorded on tape between Paul, his brother Simon (Steve King), and the girl they both love, Amber (Imogen Goodman).
There is also a chorus of sometimes literal, sometimes symbolic ghosts/’grey people’/members of a (paradoxically?) communistic Corporation which exerts its seemingly limitless powers to evict citizens from their homes and silence their voices ‘for the good of the people’. It is bound up in themes of the impossibility of memory and history and our inevitable ephemerality. All the while, it echoes of a variety of things from the absurd (how can the title not recall Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?) to Classic tragedy. On top of all that, I saw Paul McCartney is Dead performed in the site-specific (and perfect!) location of The Rag Factory, a warehouse all the way down a dark alley which juts off of Brick Lane.
If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in this play, well, that’s certainly true, and I wouldn’t say that’s a bad thing. In the lowly-lit cocoon of dark curtains that formed the stage on which it was performed, and without the aid of recorded sound, Paul McCartney Is Dead played out in a way which seemed elegant, effortless, and simple. It was a series of warm, bittersweet moments flickering before its audience’s eyes, shining briefly before inevitably fading away again.
Paul McCartney Is Dead contains some great characters, and the dynamics between them are very poignant in contrast to the vague, desolate landscape against which they are painted. And there were a few fleeting scenes where all of this conspired, not only to work but to absolutely shine with humour and sadness, truth and humanity.
It is furthermore clear – from the amount of information in the play’s program, to the energy that runs through the play, that both on and behind the stage (however and wherever they may choose to form one), the Broken Glass theatre company is an incredibly talented and vibrant group of people. They exude exactly the kind of excitement about what they’re doing and the art of theatre that makes the theatre so, well, exciting.
I am, however, of two minds about Paul McCartney is Dead. Clearly, I think it’s great; I think the Broken Glass theatre company is great, and I love the energy, vibrance and urgency of this play. And because of all of this, I was left wanting more.
There are some wonderful things at play here, but I also think that some of the devices that take us there are, at the very least, tired. There was something about The Corporation, the whole dystopian trope, the constant, cryptic references to how ‘things were different then’ that neither rung true nor seemed particularly relevant to what I would consider the heart of the play. It seems to me a false opposition, a poorly imagined scapegoat, a very visible piece of scaffolding in Paul McCartney’s construction. The threat of The Corporation/Chorus’s regime isn’t particularly believable to me, even in the context of this unspecific future world (although, as I noted above, its effects, the emotions it inspires, absolutely are). I take particular issue with the fact that the things it’s set in opposition to are, in fact, other corporations. Libby says that since the Corporation has banned everything, she doesn’t miss books, but she sure misses Coca-Cola and TV.
In spite of those issues, I think Paul McCartney is Dead works brilliantly as a metaphor for itself, and also for A Younger Theatre, framed, as it is, by Libby trying desperately to piece together – to voice and preserve – a story of the past, her past, her friends’ past. Her narrative may not always be accurate or coherent, nor is it certain to be heard by any ears that will truly listen, but it is nonetheless centrally important to the play that she speak in these attempts. And in a way, I think this is what we, as young people in the arts, endeavour to do. These characters and we are but imperfect, still-maturing voices striving to say something which, often, is perhaps a bit out of our grasp.
So, yes, let us sing into the darkness with our fledgling, human voices whether our neighbours, The Corporation, or the powers-that-be will hear us or not. And while, of course, as I think Paul McCartney is Dead would attest, words are better than silence, and imperfect memories are better than an empty void, let us also strive for more; let us sing clearer, better, brighter, always in the hope that someone will listen and take something greater from our songs.
Paul McCartney is Dead was presented by Broken Glass Theatre Company – for more information on the company and more shows see their website here.