What is unsayable in the 21st century? If you’ve been watching Donald Trump on the other side of the Atlantic, you might think ‘not much’.
But in a celebration of new writing by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, that’s the question writers are tasked to explore throughout the Making Mischief Festival.
The Other Place, the RSC’s studio theatre, re-opened this year, following extensive refurbishment. And it seems suitable that while we’ve spent much of 2016 marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the company which bears his name is simultaneously dedicating itself as a champion of new writing. New work that reflects a very different world’s troubles.
For Fraser Grace, writer of the award-winning Breakfast with Mugabe, his new play ended up feeling more relevant than he intended. Set in an imagined city, ‘very like London’, as the aftermath of a terrorist attack unfolds, his new play, Always Orange, saw actors rehearsing the scenes as news broke of recent attacks in France and Germany.
“It has been very strange, rehearsing it as we’ve been hearing about attacks elsewhere in Europe,” admits Grace.
“You really ask questions about how we preserve what’s important to us, and whether we’ll finally acknowledge the complexities of what we’re facing. I think it does make the play seem all the more pressing.”
Grace began writing the play as a response to the kidnapping and murder of several Western journalists by Islamist extremist group ISIS, and the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris last year.
“As someone who also lives by words, I found that truly, truly shocking,” he says.
“And I really felt that rather than look away from that, we have a responsibility as artists to stare it back in the face and try and ask some questions about why this happens and explore what it’s like to live when you’re under a terrorist threat.”
Despite the heavy subject matter, focused on the experience of living alongside the threat of a terror attack, Grace describes his new work as a comedy in parts. “It’s a comic play in many ways,” he says.
“Sometimes you have to try not to be affected by what’s happening in the world, and you have to try and muster sufficient life to make a play about it instead.”
If that’s the case, then Somalia Seaton is doing that too as she looks to explore the thorny issue of national identity, newly-painful post-Brexit, in her new play The Fall of the Kingdom, The Rise of the Footsoldier. Delving into themes of national identity, race, culture and class, we meet a teacher forced to harshly re-consider her liberal, middle-class ideals and values in the face of a challenging confrontation with one of her pupils.
“The thing that for me is unsayable is the idea that neo-liberalism can be more dangerous for cultural harmony than the far right,” says Seaton, explaining the provocative theme at the heart of her uncomfortable exploration.
Seaton says that as a woman – and a woman of colour – she has experienced discrimination and oppression in corners of society that others may fail to recognise, let alone challenge and forge a robust discussion around. She says that this, combined with the traditional English reserve, can make it hard to push complex cultural issues with deeply ingrained historic roots into arenas of discourse.
“One of the things I’m interested in is how quickly we liberals shut down some of the voices, particularly from white working class English people,” says Seaton.
“When they say ‘the face of my country is changing’, we say ‘oh no, that’s racist’, and actually, the conversation needs to be had. Because it’s all part of the same conversation that people are facing structural racism need to be having – it’s part of the same beast.
“There are so many things I wanted to explore – what it means to be English, how we define that, who’s allowed to be English and who’s not. It all fed into this narrative of the teacher and the student.”
We meet Sally Hawkins, a white, liberal teacher, and Aisha, a smart but volatile black student, at what Seaton describes as a ‘real defining point in their lives’.
“For Hawkins, her life is kind of coming to a point where there are a whole load of things in her life are starting to unravel, and its about how she defines herself in terms of who she’s going to be in this world,” she explains.
Seaton says that her overriding ambition for the piece is to open up some of those most uncomfortable of truths and spark much needed conversation – and so far she’s had positive audience responses.
“It’s been really humbling to hear the responses,” she admits. “A lot of people have said that they felt uncomfortable but that it made them really think.
“For me, change begins with a question, if this play can help people be brought out of their comfort zone then it’s doing its job.”
Always Orange and Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Footsoldier run as a double bill at the RSC’s Making Mischief Festival until August 27. The festival also features Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. by Alice Birch and Joanne by Deborah Bruce, Theresa Ikoko, Laura Lomas, Chino Odimba and Ursula Rani Sarma.
Image: Richard Lakos © RSC