'England became smaller and bigger': what 'home' means in Brexit Britain


In the days after the EU referendum, Headlong theatre company’s artistic director Jeremy Herrin was struck by the dividing lines fracturing the UK. “It was just a massively clear exposure that the country was in disagreement,” he says, “and the old party lines – north/south, working class/middle class, Tory/Labour – all of those divides seemed to be foxed completely by Brexit.” For many, that passionate disagreement was cause for despair. Herrin and Headlong decided to interrogate it.

One side of that investigation into a divided nation was Brexit Shorts, a series of short films made in collaboration with the Guardian. The flipside, which is only now reaching a wider public, was an outreach project ambitiously named Headlong Futures. The aim was to work alongside partner venues to create a “small, bespoke, compartmentalised” community show that would “cross certain geographical, class, political, generational divides”. In a polarised nation, Herrin says, “it feels like a really healthy thing to do, to sit in a space with a group of people who we don’t know and share something”.

Watch The End, a Brexit Short by Abi Morgan, starring Penelope Wilton and directed by Jeremy Herrin

Over the last two years, outreach associate Rob Watt and playwright Stef Smith have been spending time with four communities across England: in Plymouth, Kendal, Bristol and Mansfield. On a small scale, the project has been taking the political temperature of the nation. But Watt and Smith didn’t want Headlong Futures to produce a “Brexit play”, or to simply confirm the dividing lines that criss-cross the country. Instead, they focused on getting to know the people involved. “What we were interested in was the grey, crunchy area in the middle of it,” says Watt. “So, rather than talking about this or that, them and us, I was more interested in who am I and what does home mean, and how do other people fit into that – or not.”

In one of the early exercises, participants filled a box with items that they felt represented them, accompanied by a letter about themselves. Kendal residents opted for their town’s famous mint cake, while teenagers in Bristol put in crisp packets. Each of the boxes was then opened by one of the groups from elsewhere in the country, whose immediate reactions to the contents were then challenged by the letter. Reflecting on these connections across generations and geography, Smith says, “it felt like England simultaneously became smaller and bigger”.



‘Who knows where it will end up?’… Headlong artistic director Jeremy Herrin

Those early workshops have evolved into Acts of Resistance, a collaborative piece of theatre that, in Herrin’s words, asks: “What is the nature of people power?” Smith’s initial brief to the four groups posed that question through the dramatic stimulus of a fracking protest. “I think the metaphor of fracking, of digging down deep into the earth, getting below the surface, pressure building, something being released, something that’s morally tricky – I felt like that was a really useful image.” Extending the fracking metaphor, Smith suggests that the participants “dug into what it means to be political at the moment, and what protest means at the moment”.

For some, that meant protecting the spaces that they see as theirs; for others, it meant reflecting on the legacy of past movements such as the miners’ strikes. The stories created by the groups each explore a different act of resistance, from big to small. Smith, who has woven the four narratives into the final show, explains her role as providing a structure that was then fleshed out by the participants: “If I gave them the spine, their stories became the muscle of it.”

Both Herrin and Watt were adamant that the programme wouldn’t dive into so-called “disadvantaged” communities. “It wasn’t an altruistic thing,” says Herrin. “Good art is what you live for if you work in the theatre, and I don’t see such a huge dividing line between outreach, community work and other work.” Watt adds: “What I never want to do in this type of work is parachute into an area and have an ego, going, ‘Hey, let’s make some theatre’, excavate all those stories, and then bugger off.”

So what will be the long-term legacy of the project? At one level, it has forged connections that might erode some of the barriers dividing people across the country. “One of my hopes is that they felt connected to somebody quite different to them in the country and learned something about their experience, about their wishes and wants for the world,” says Smith.

There are also plans for the partner venues to continue working with some of the participants – especially the young people in the Bristol group. And, while Headlong doesn’t expect to change the country overnight, there’s a hope that the project might begin to shift public discourse. “You can change the temperature and you can move the conversation forward,” says Herrin. “Who knows where it will end up?”

Acts of Resistance is at Bristol Old Vic, 7-8 April.



Source link

LEAVE A REPLY