Those long British childhood summers, endless days of possibility and madcap energy punctuated by weak sunshine and spells of boredom, are unforgettable to those who have experienced them. But how will this interminable, cramped and deadly summer that ‘started when it was still cold’ look in the nostalgic rear-view mirror for a generation of kids when they are grown-up and in a reminiscent mood?
Written by Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie in the week that lockdown began to ease in Scotland, The Longest Summer attempts to take a long view of the impacts of Covid-19, attempting to find hope of renewal by putting it into a historical perspective. At the same time, it focusses on the experiences of children during and after the lockdown, a topic that remains largely underexplored. This is understandable perhaps, given that they are some of those least directly affected by Coronavirus itself, but they have also suffered some of the greatest upheavals from the indirect impacts of Coronavirus, with the lockdown tearing up an intricately woven world of friendships and activities that cannot so easily be transferred online. By mapping the nostalgia of an adult narrator Richard Rankin onto a child (Charlie Anderson) re-emerging into the world, director Jemima Levick allows us to bridge the divide in generational experiences more easily in these most atomised of times.
After an opening touching on the difficulties of the lockdown (never being able to go outside, people sharing offices with washing machines) the piece breaks out into hopeful song as Anderson emerges into the outside world, seeing it anew in all its beauty: dappled sunshine through green leaves, running water, ramps to slide down, street art to jump over. He starts out cautiously ‘trying not to touch the world in front of [his] eyes’ aware of both the vitality and the fragility of this renewed world. But the production is soon revelling in the sheer joyful physicality of youth that has been suppressed for so long and now bursts out unstoppably.
If the message at the piece’s core wasn’t already clear it is confirmed by the refrain ‘rainbows come after the storm’, also a reference to the rainbow symbol in support of NHS that adorns many walls and windows in the video and which Anderson is inspired to draw at the conclusion. And, important as it is to find hope in difficult circumstances, this is where my problem with The Longest Summer arises, because the nostalgic perspective it employs renders this hope as passive, inevitable, which it is not.
Support for the NHS helps nobody when it isn’t backed up with political action and the natural world that we know and love and the ecologies that it supports (including our own societies) cannot be regenerated simply by people staying at home for several months. Yes, Coronavirus gives us an opportunity for a fresh start, a new direction, rejuvenated priorities but these are only just the beginning. Unless these brittle hopes can inspire huge action, it seems unlikely at the moment that the current generation of children will have much reason for fondness of the past except to regret what has been lost. For now, at least, the summers are only going to get longer.
The Longest Summer is playing online for the foreseeable future as part of Scenes for Survival. For more information, see the National Theatre of Scotland website.