22 August 2019.
The Den, Stalybridge Civic Hall.
Using Thomas More’s book, published in 1516, as their starting point, the Royal Exchange Young Company explore the concept of Utopia in their latest show. In these uncertain times, it seems only natural to search for alternatives, wish for something that’s not broken, and perhaps even dream of perfection.
On a bare stage, surrounded on all sides by the audience, Chianti Sibanda calmly and authoritatively sets the scene. Inviting us to “imagine“, as she takes on the role of Raphael, a fictional 16th-century sailor summoned into being by More to tell of “a place that might at first seem impossible”. Somewhere “so well and wisely governed. A place that works“. There’s something about Sibanda’s performance and the elegant simplicity of her words, as she ponders what type of beard she might have or if she should brandish a dagger or a sword, that seems to stop time and reset our compass. In those moments, the wooden posts, ropes and cloth of the Exchange’s new pop-up theatre could well be the sails of this ancient mariner’s vessel – and the space crackles with possibilities.
There are to be no swashbuckling adventures from the past, however. The many voices that we are about to hear, speak from the here and now. “Keep your minds open,” someone says, and thoughts, ideas and opinions abound as the cast delves into the concept of a utopia. New laws are suggested, other ways of doing things proposed. None of it is plain sailing. Ideals are hard to achieve, compromise is riddled with pitfalls, inequalities can persist, and mistakes seem inevitable.
More’s sea-faring traveller Raphael Hythlodaeus, the ‘source’ of his knowledge about Utopia, is now reimagined as a mystical, shape-shifting figure. Mysteriously appearing in modern-day Manchester, as Raphael, Rafaela or Israphael they lead people on journeys of discovery. Not across oceans to ‘New Worlds’ this time but on low carbon trips through the city’s neighbourhoods – on bikes, by tram or even upwards through the branches of a tree. These variations on Raphael are seemingly ordinary people – Metrolink workers or shoppers in Aldi. The journeys they conjure up commence in the unlikeliest of places – coffees shops, tram stops and supermarket bakeries. Yet the hum-drum nature of the starting points doesn’t make the travels any less transformative for those swept along in them, including ourselves. In return for an open mind and a sense of adventure, characters find themselves transported to situations that offer self-fulfilment, euphoria, inspiration and peace – ” a place where our house wasn’t on fire“.
As stories unfold and words tumble out, the stage fills with balloons. Carried on by hand, thrown into proceedings, and blown up continuously throughout the show, their numbers swell as time moves on. We’re told to “take these balloons very seriously” and they symbolise the cast’s precious hopes and dreams for the future. Colourfully occupying the space, the occasional loud bang reminds us that such things have power as well as fragility.
Those balloons, like the audience and performers, are held close within the Den‘s encompassing structure. Director Atri Banerjee’s extensive experience in the Royal Exchange’s main auditorium means that the pop-up in-the-round space is used to full effect. Often the staging is simple, focused on what is being said, but there are dance moves, a balloon fight and some singing, and on occasion, the 18-strong cast fills the space to bursting or spills out into the aisles.
Designer Louise Anderson’s smart use of lighting, sees yellow, orange and green dappled shapes travel around the walls like sun streaming through tram windows, and as three performers dance gleefully centre-stage they are joined by others outside silhouetted through the Den’s fabric all moving in time to the same beat. Charlotte Barber’s wonderfully atmospheric music lifts the production higher, bringing additional energy, mood and depth. Her subtle soundscapes skilfully surround the performers but never overshadow them.
Although the crisp and clear-sighted text is credited to Chris Thorpe, much of the script is also the work of the company. As well as the focus on finding a better future there’s also an emphasis on the unique position young people find themselves in. A sadness that they feel forced to leave simple joys behind to be accepted as adults. Frustration at the arbitrariness of age limits, and the barriers they impose to young people’s participation in society.
Breath is often referenced, a touchstone for life and positivity. It’s used to inflate the hope-filled balloons, becomes a source of reassurance (“just breathe and it will be ok“), and after a loud shouty showdown between members of the cast it is a ritualistic act of rebalancing, a collective and pointed exhalation of negativity
As things progress and stakes are raised, breathing becomes more laboured and uneven. This underpins a powerfully evoked feeling of crisis, as characters become swamped by negative thoughts or rage against the destruction of the planet. The temperature rises on stage, voices compete to be heard, and there is din and disagreement.
In the midst of all this, we can just make out Mace Maynard’s mounting panic. Her character has been trying to speak throughout the show but has been repeatedly silenced, her youth and comparative lack of experience used as reasons to sideline her. Suddenly she seizes her moment, and it is as if every ounce of repressed fear, anger and impotence pours out of her. It’s a ferocious performance, as she vents her frustration at the injustices of the world around her and searches in desperation for an alternative. The microphone, that she has been denied access to until now, is used to pound away at the balloons, bursting them one by one. As she struggles to see any way forward, her energy deserts her, and as she carries on lashing out with the mic all you can hear is “Ican’tbreathe Ican’tbreathe Ican’tbreathe” – it is devastating to watch.
Just as More knew that Utopia could mean both ‘good place’ and ‘no place’, the company recognise the concept’s inherent flaws – that it will mean something different to everyone depending on their idea of perfect, and ultimately “what works for one person won’t work for everyone“. Perhaps after all, as Maynard’s character concludes it is enough to find an approach that feels right for you. To do one good thing every day, to think of others, make ethical choices, and carry out small acts of kindness.
The world of their dreams may have proved elusive, but in their search for it the Royal Exchange Young Company have assembled their strongest work in quite some time. Superbly written, meticulously directed, and performed with charm and passion, this Utopia leaves you wanting more (with a small ‘m’!).
Image by Anneka Morley