Online as part of Homemakers.
Daylight is in short supply at this time of the year. Back in June, on Saturday 20th, there was an abundance of it. 16 hours and 38 minutes to be exact. The longest day and then the shortest night – the Summer Solstice. In my mind, it’s associated with Stonehenge, and I’m not alone in that. Thousands usually flock to the site to watch the sun align with the stone circle. There were none of the usual crowds this year, not even the druids could get close. Strange times.
There was a gathering that night though. Online like so many in 2020. And yes, on Zoom. But within that unpromising setting, James Monaghan created one of my favourite pieces of performance this year, Let’s Spend The Night Together. There’s not much from the last 10 months I’d rush to relive but I’d happily spend time with that show again.
Commissioned as part of HOME’s Homemaker programme, and in partnership with the University of Salford, Monaghan’s show was nothing if not ambitious. A cast of 20, each logged in from their various homes, taking part in a 10 hour long live-streamed durational performance, from sunset to first light, as the country eased itself out of lockdown.
Throughout the night, the participants came together on screen in small groups to swap stories, cook food, illustrate their futures, discuss ideas and perform. Separated by circumstances but united in joint endeavours.
Early in the evening Shyla is tasked with drawing a picture in her unused sketch book. Her hasty scribbles depict a group of people outdoors, gathered around dancing flames. “Every night they tell stories by the fire“, she says, layering on detail “and they’re not scared to be out in the cold, or the wind, or the dark, because it’s natural and they feel fine. They just tell stories about their life and things they can imagine“.
Most of the cast are young, and talking together into the early hours seems like a natural thing for them to do, a rite of passage even. Yet Shyla’s stick men and women, and the simplicity of her drawing, are reminiscent of figures in cave paintings. That image aligns the show’s format with a fundamental need for connection that can be traced back, over thousand years, through generations of people gathering together in the darkness to find comfort, safety and a sense of belonging.
Backward glances aren’t much in evidence on this night however, it’s a show that faces firmly forward. References to questions being asked “for the archive”, and talk of the impact of Covid-19, as well as a nod to Father’s Day and a brief air-punching celebration of the post-lockdown return of Match Of The Day (as it happened), give Let’s Spend The Night Together the feeling of a time capsule – snapshots of a very specific point in history. Yet, while on the one hand it locates itself precisely in the moment in which it is being performed, it also plays fast and loose with time, refusing to be trapped by it.
At a point in which its participants are struggling with the multiple effects of a pandemic, Monaghan’s structure and provocations force them to see beyond that and inhabit their many futures. Question after question pulls them and the audience further and further out of the present day.
“What expression will you pull after this phone call?”
What have you learned in lockdown that you’d like to take with you?
Where is the first place you want to go to when this is over?
“What would you say to 50-year-old you?”
“How will we understand manhood in the future?”
What does your future look like in 10 years’ time? 15? 30? 100 years? 120!
“How old will I be when I die?”
So many things to think about, so much time ahead. The world keeps spinning.
While there are a range of influences at play here, I can’t help but be drawn to the parallels with Manchester theatre-makers Quarantine, especially in the show’s accumulation of real-life experiences, the deftly crafted air of spontaneity, and the use of questions and tasks to structure and drive the piece forward. It’s all done with a lightness of touch, but you sense a keen eye at work.
Monaghan’s approach to theatre-making isn’t necessarily something that all the participants feel comfortable with. A few openly acknowledge that they feel nervous and vulnerable, although they all bravely throw themselves into it all. Even the more experienced Reuben Johnson, who confidently (and rhythmically) rattles through his segment finds himself suddenly stopped in his tracks by some of the questioning.
While it might not be everyone’s natural format, the show’s structure is able to accommodate a wide range of performance styles – with the company veering from the naturalistic through to full-on jazz hands. That rich variety yields entertaining results – Helen’s chaotic but unphased approach to dying her hair ‘punk purple’, Shyla’s skateboard-powered musical ride along the communal corridor of her apartment block, and Charlie’s roller coaster reinvention of himself a professional wrestler, allowing us a glimpse of the various personas he would adopt to sustain his future career.
Within the space Monaghan creates, a couple of performances stand out because they feel so unexpected. Chatting away casually about her life, Zoe King seems right at home in the show’s flow, so much so, it’s easy to miss the moment that she suddenly embroils the audience in her story, casting them as the future partner she encounters at her best friend’s wedding. “Maybe I don’t meet you at the church, maybe I meet you at the reception”. It’s a simple enough technique, although it’s oddly startling to see something that is so clearly ‘acting’ taking place, but it’s done with effortless conviction and makes a real impact. Later, Emily Stefan who, earlier in the evening, fiddles awkwardly with her hair as she asks and answers questions, imagines herself getting her first part in a dance production. An unassuming cream-coloured kitchen, with tea towels folded neatly on the oven door handle, becomes her stage as she enacts, but is also in, that moment – spinning, extending, filling the space with movement, transformed. As her expressive dancing draws to its conclusion, she looks straight at the camera, confidently holds your gaze, fearless and fulfilled, and smiles.
Operating on multiple levels, Let’s Spend The Night Together is not only asking participants to gaze into their coronavirus-clouded crystal balls, but also offering them an unassuming showcase for their skills and talent. Occasionally, that might be through something very neatly framed – a burlesque dance, a music video, a show tune or, in Emily’s case, a piece of dance – moments of hitherto only imagined performances, now shared with an audience – but in truth, the whole thing is one big performance. At a time when so many lives are on hold – Monaghan asks his participants to slip willingly into the choppy waters of uncertainty and imagine their lives as they could be. Vague aspirations are brought more clearly into focus – plans pencilled in for future milestones both near and far away – and the show becomes an opportunity to fast forward to those experiences, try them on for size and draw on their energy.
A strong sense of potential, and achievements yet to come, pervades the show. That blank canvas in Shyla’s room and Zoe’s empty notebook hint at future creativity, and there’s room on Charlie’s fridge door to add to the collection of magnets from travels around the world, just as Josh’s bedroom wall has space for even more posters promoting shows he will see or even make.
Experiencing shows on Zoom can be a soul-destroying experience, but Monaghan avoids the trap of trying to actively ‘involve’ the audience through the limited tools the video-conferencing technology offers. Instead he focuses on building a community online, within the show itself, with clusters of performers for each segment becoming a clearly seen ‘audience’ for each other’s solo efforts. They observe and react – encouraging one another, chipping in and chivvying things along – with kind words, jokey asides and enthusiastic applause. It’s an infectious approach. Even in the one section anchored by a solo performer, Morgan may start off on his own, but as he leads a discussion about difference, and how life experience feeds into the stories people tell, he quickly finds himself connected to his colleagues as they put him in the ‘hot seat’, and explore his ideas.
Participants take the time to show us around their domestic spaces. Sharing family photos, telling the stories of prized possessions and sentimental mementos – orientating the audience, creating a sense of connection, and making everyone feel welcome. A constant reminder that these are not just sets for a performance, they are homes.
Throughout the night that sense of community grows as we see and hear from an ever-expanding supporting cast made up of friends, family, pets and future acquaintances. Some appearances are fleeting – Michael Jordan the cat, Seamus the dog, Max’s mum whistling from upstairs, Grace’s drawing of her dad looking like the man on the Pringles’ tube, and there’s even Casper the Citroen parked up outside Zoe’s front door. Other connections are more substantial and, in some instances, very moving – a joyful phone call with a beloved brother, an affectionate talk with an ex-boyfriend, and a touching conversation between a proud father and his daughter. Monaghan’s skill is that none of it feels intrusive or exploitative – just very human, and very real.
If I were to stretch a point and overextend a metaphor (very 2020 I know), the show is like a theatrical equivalent of metta-bhavana. Cultivating a loving kindness with its ever-expanding network of friends, relatives and less familiar faces – its warmth and good-will radiating outwards into the night. At that point in June, I hadn’t realised my heart had become so heavy until Let’s Spend The Night Together somehow lightened the load.
Don’t let me give you the wrong impression though, there’s grit and determination as well as good vibes. Participants aren’t unrealistic about the challenges that may be waiting for them post-pandemic, or how frustrating it is to find their lives suddenly restricted. Nor do they shy away from talking about the potential difficulties and compromises they may have to face within their chosen profession.
Self-proclaimed “oldest student in town” Helen offers a different perspective on the show’s contemplation of what the future may hold. Reminding her younger friends that time is precious, and that as the years pass by, there is less of it to play with, she determines to cram as much into life as possible while she still can, and revels in the opportunity afforded by the show to cross something off her lively ‘bucket list’.
The prospect of eventual death rarely clouds other people’s thoughts. To most of the company, it is a concept as distant as the future worlds some of them imagine, places populated by robots and alien overlords. When young Zach acts out his final living moments, he can’t resist a cheeky grin to camera as he expires dramatically.
With an experienced online production team onboard, there are only a few minor connection glitches, and the evening’s sole major malfunction is a non-technical one – when Hayley’s mascara has an epic reaction to her chopping onions. Avoiding the listless nature of so much Zoom based performance, the show has an energising wanderlust, as performers carry their laptops around with them, move from room to room, and play around with camera angles and views. Moments are unexpectedly framed – focused in on a particular detail, or suddenly connected with another life in a different place while the main narrative continues.
Zoom’s rigid grid is constantly shuffled around and broken down. Views are regularly increased and reduced, an odd number of them and then an even one, many people and then a few. At times it is used like a gallery wall – as participants all offer similar glimpses of domestic life – views out of their windows, side lights going on, or everyone swaying in the dark as their phone lights glow bright in unison. A screen full of boiling kettles is almost Warholian in its use of repeated imagery, the tension between sameness and difference elevating the everyday into art.
Sound and music are also used inventively – in one memorable sequence, everyone can be seen dancing to their favourite ‘lockdown song’. With their feeds muted, we are left to guess the soundtracks blasting out in each room, our attentions focused instead on watching the joyful abandon of all their various movements.
For those with the stamina to party on until dawn, it ends like so many other long nights, with giddy talk of hopes for the future, a messy drinking game and a little dance. Someone does a big yawn, and the spell is broken. Everyone stands, as if acknowledging applause, and then moves off to go through a nightly ritual. Each brushes their teeth, draws the curtains against the morning sun, gets ready for bed, slips under the covers, and one by one they turn off the lights.
Back in June, there was a sense of emerging from something, but the twists and turns of this tumultuous year have told us otherwise. I’ve often thought back to that night, remembering the commitment and enthusiasm of all those performers, and the show‘s powerful blend of cautious optimism and youthful energy. Yes, they succeeded in creating a digital record of that particular evening, during the strangest of summers, but the show was so much more than a memory box in the making. Let’s Spend The Night Together’s focus on a future waiting to be explored, and its generous celebration of lives bursting at the seams with dreams, desires and ambitions offered hope in dark times. For me, thinking about it now, all those months later, it still does.
Interview with James Monaghan, cast & crew.
Cast: Bradley Bowckett, Charlie Blanshard, Emily Stefan, Finley Woods, Georgina Sheridan, Grace Hackett, Hayley Boutty, Helen Varey, Jamie Deborah Blake Irwin, Max Holmes, Morgan Bailey, Oliver Hurst, Patrick Kennedy, Rehad Rahman, Reuben Johnson, Sara Abanur, Shyla Toulalan, Sian Carry, Zach Douglas & Zoe King.
Performed on Saturday 20 June – Sunday 21 June 2020.