Monday 1 August 2016

Boy – Almeida, London

[seen 26/04/16]

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a piece of theatre that demanded this much space. Space away from it, I mean. In a different way, Ophelias zimmer did too (it probably got about six months from me, in fact). But, with Ophelias zimmer, you can start thinking through the intellectual issues as soon as you’ve heard the subject matter and an outline of the execution. With Boy it feels like the reverse is true. (Or, at least, I experienced it very much as *the piece* first, and thinking through what it was really about afterwards.)

If I’d tried to write this review [a month] ago, I think it would have gone something like:


Bloody hell.


And I do want to record that experience. The first level of seeing Boy is just being hit by it. How heavy it is. How painful and serious and godawful it all is.

The story of Boy – in short – is that of a young bloke who’s just finished the school year (and consequently his school career?). He has nothing to do all day, and no money to do it with. He goes around to his schoolfriends’ houses, but they’re out doing things. He kills time, he goes to the park, he meets people at bus stops, he stutters inarticulately; he says nothing good, memorable, witty, or charming. People take against him. No one particularly wants to chat to him. And he’s not really got anything he wants or that he can offer. At least, nothing that he can articulate. And we in the audience aren’t asked to sympathise. His leering at the neighbour of a schoolfriend who answers her door in her dressing gown isn’t admirable. Judged by the values of an Almeida audience, he’s not much of an advert for himself.

And this is the genius of the piece. It really doesn’t shy away from making Liam (the boy of Boy) largely if not wholly unsympathetic. You’d really have to go out of your way to feel understanding towards him.

[Edit: the above was written two months ago. Everything from here on is new 17/07/16]

Writing about Boy from the vantage point of three-months-on is intended as a massive compliment. It’s a heavy piece of work, and when it was on, perhaps more than now, it felt like it was dealing with very heavy, difficult, buried, problematic subject areas. In an interesting way, it feels like this was “the play about Brexit” that couldn’t be recognised as such until Brexit happened.

Would “Liam” have voted for Brexit? It seems unlikely. His apparent incomprehension of almost everything seems more likely to have put him in the third of the population who didn’t vote at all, but then, no one ever really seems to take the trouble to try to talk to him properly, either to canvas an opinion, or encourage him to express one.

In Sacha Wares’s staging (which is probably one of the two or three most modern, forward-looking, Britain-in-Europe stagings of 2016), in Miriam Buether’s design, Liam hardly ever gets the chance to sit down. Not properly. Not comfortably. Not talking to someone willing to meet him half way or draw him out; so lord knows how actually articulate he might or might not be. In the design, the cast wear those fold-out, in-trouser articulated-supports used by those “floating” Yodas you get in city shopping precincts. This is perfect on so many levels that one could (and, indeed, David Jays has) write an entire review focussing on just this one design decision. For me (now, after a lot of thought), it’s especially perfect because along with signifying the lack of a proper-sit-down, the lack of anywhere comfortable for yourself, the impermanence of lives in neoliberalism – zero-hour furniture, if you will – it also recalls the crappiest bits of London tourism and attempted money-making.

Liam’s lack of a base, and lack of articulation, is also part of the genius of Butler’s script; not since the films of Harold Lloyd or Charlie Chaplin have we really had such a hapless anti-hero say so little and signify so much. After the Brexit vote, there seemed to be a general tone of surprise amongst the more or less everyone with any access to the mainstream media, from opinion columnists to politicians (as exemplified by the way the whole country seemed to go into spasm for three weeks after the result came in; one was reminded of Shift the ape in C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle when the cruel God he has been praying to – and in which he does not believe – actually turns up). Since the Leave-vote win, there has been a sub-genre of piece suggesting that now the barbarians are coming for us (most overtly in the piece by self-appointed “expert,” James Doeser, in The Stage). I’m rather assuming Mr Doeser missed Boy, or at the very least, entirely missed its point (or at least one of its thousands of possible infer-able points), which is that the more one treats people like shit, the more like shit they are liable to behave.

The point is, Boy was the perfect play through which to understand pre-Brexit Britain. It specifically deals with the white working-class; the in-work poor, the sub-urban communities encircling the metropolises that feel all the more disenfranchised for being that bit closer to everything they don’t have. (Although, if nothing else, perhaps our media does ensure that lack of proximity is no bar to envy or fear any more.) That Boy was inspired by the UK riots of 2011 is perhaps instructive, if in no other other way than “The Establishment”’s manifest failure to listen to anyone then, or to acknowledge the massive gulfs between haves and have-nots, the insiders and the alienated “outsiders”. Yes, “Brexit” has broken down that clumsy binary yet further, but the key lesson still remains, that a massive and growing majority of people in Britain are incredibly angry, and not even all that articulate or accurate about who or what they’re angry with. Brexit perhaps also demonstrates that neither articulacy or accuracy are going to count for much by way of a defence if the situation is allowed to deteriorate further. Boy shows the detail of countless lives ruthlessly, mechanically discarded in a Britain whose population has numerically far outstripped its usefulness, and whose ruling class haven’t quite worked out what to do with.

Perhaps one of the reasons that it feels compelling to review Boy now, particularly now, in the wake of Brexit, is to demonstrate that theatre wasn’t actually blind in the run-up. Theatre, on occasion, was in fact sharp, forensic and acute in its diagnosis of the state of modern Britain. Theatre wasn’t just sitting about narcissistically making “theatre about theatre”, it was out there doing the best it can. And that best was extremely insightful.

[continues, increasingly off-topic...

The problem is, one theatre can’t change minds by the country-load, or by county, or even by a whole town, let alone city (if “changing minds” is even its intention or business). That this feels like a problem is probably due in large part to what we’re used to now in terms of broadcast “success” and “fame”.

[Hearing the whole first Oasis album being played in a pub in a town in the middle of nowhere in Slovenia is “reach”, even if the album does say very little of consequence, and may even be all the more popular for this precise reason.]

A such, it’s theatre’s local-ness, and small-ness that feel like the most pressing issues currently facing the artform. It’s not a matter of “elitism” (or, more precisely *exclusivity*), per se, that excludes people; in 99.9% of cases, it is sheer unavailability. If a thing’s good, it sells out its finite number of tickets and that is that. (See: Harry Potter and the Endless Run/Harry Potter and the Clamour for Tickets for further elaboration...)

I have two proposals: that this can and should be countered both by livestreaming and accessible, open, online archiving – so people can just watch videos of performances online, forever, for free. It might not take off, but nothing’s lost for a video of something that no longer exists being on YouTube/Vimeo instead of *nowhere*, and who knows who might see it and be inspired? And, secondly: that theatres should immediately release scripts from contractual clauses as soon as they’ve been produced. I would venture that (almost) NO ONE NOT ALREADY WORKING IN THEATRE, who lives in Manchester, or Leeds, Liverpool, Birmingham, Newcastle, or wherever, saw Boy; let alone people in Sunderland, Bradford, Salford, Wolverhampton, or Warrington. But it’s not beyond the grasp of these places to have a production, nor beyond the wit of their inhabitants to go to it. But they can’t go if there’s no production to go to.

So, one possible response to having been thus deprived is for all those people to instead think, “Well, fuck them, I didn’t want to go anyway.” And that response *could* calcify into an overall attitude to theatre and/or art. (I’m not saying that is what happens. Even with excellent nation-wide provision, I’ve still never been to a football match, on the premise that it’s not really my thing. That doesn’t make me any worse a person than someone whose informed guess, knowing what they do about themselves and about theatre, is that they would rather do something else.) Still, at least it’s a choice I can make. I have a vague theory that people feel much more warmly toward things that they actively reject as choice, than things that they have no real chance of going to...

Anyway, on with the summer...

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