Thursday, 17 August 2017

From The Ground Up – Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh

[seen 16/08/17]

This new piece from the Almeida Theatre’s Young Company is surprisingly sophisticated. Surprising until you see that the “writer” responsible for it is Joeri Smet, of Ontrorend Goed fame. Indeed, in many ways this feels like it is an O.G. Show in all but name, and specifically a follow-up to 2013’s Fight Night.

Where Fight Night explored the frustrations of the political landscape with a series of anonymous votes that led to a bunch of candidates that no one really wanted being whittled down to a winner/leader who no one in their right mind would have chosen (prescient, non?), From The Ground Up seems to focus on the construction of people’s “political identities” or “sense of self”.

Now, I don’t know if the Almeida Young Company or Joeri Smet had a definitive plan for the overarching dramaturgy/architecture of the piece to tell the real story here, but that was certainly my take-home. Essentially, we’re told that we can only answer yes or no to a series of questions. They are “only interested in black and white. There’s not room for grey here.” (Which, as I go ever more grey, and racial politics seem ever more disastrously polarised, seems a horrible acute stand-alone obseervation anyway...). Of course, the way that the questions are phrased leaves a hell of a lot of mental wriggle-room, but the interesting idea here is confronting the sense that ultimately you can only agree or disagree. We maybe spend a lot of time in this life not really committing to any sort of opinion or action but instead spend a lot of time finessing the questions. So in that sense, it is a useful exercise. But then, many of the questions are phrased in such a way as to elicit knee-jerk responses, and there’s very little time to think.

The object of all this is to gradually corral the small audience – here huddled together into a low-ceiled room in a church crypt with whitewashed walls – into a selection of “political parties”: maybe more points on a political compass (old ideas of libertarian left, authoritarian left, libertarian right and so on... feel very present). Old binaries such as “family-loyalty or self-actualisation” rub up against more contemporary sounding questions relating to our opinions on whether sexuality is fixed or mutable (what is the progressive answer to that? Really? What if it was phased differently?)

The piece doesn’t really make points of its own (Ok: there’s a nice enough take-home about nuance being a good thing, I think), but instead mostly leaves us in this room – each audience member feeling incredibly isolated, I think – thinking furiously about what we actually do think, about a dizzying range of subjects. If anything, for me it made me reflect on the deeply unhelpful ways in which certain affiliations being traditionally allied to particular political (i.e. economic) positions has recently flipped, and made modern politics almost incomprehensible with a few astutely volte-faces. (Like, since when was “right wing” the first choice for “free speech,” FFS?)

If I’ve got an issue with From The Ground Up, I expect most of that issue isn’t with the piece itself, but with modern politics, which are, by-and-large, a disgusting farce. (A view I probably share with Steve Bannon. Eye roll.) Lacking any sort of didactic message, ultimately the piece serves partly as an exercise in confirmation bias, and partly as a study in futility: giving us all-too-familiar binary choices from the modern world, and asking us to exercise our meaningless “democratic” choices between two options that we had no say in formulating (and then seeing people whose “party” we’ve inadvertently joined making a mockery of that support. Hello Leave/Remain).

So, yeah.  Loads of fun, until it reminds you how bleak everything in the world is, basically.

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