“You’re going to hear some things you agree with, and you’re going to hear some things you disagree with. Your job is to listen.” It might seem an obvious thing to say to a bunch of individuals about to transform into that harsh and untameable beast, a theatre audience, but on going into Zest Theatre and Half Moon Theatre’s co-production of What Once Was Ours, we were surprised and perhaps even a little alarmed to hear these words spoken before we entered the auditorium.
What Once Was Ours is a tale of Brexit, racism, identity, family, class, and individuals struggling to adapt in a changing environment which once, supposedly, “was theirs”. Watching the play we lose something we had too: an expectation (if it ever existed) that theatre might be presented to seated individuals on rows of chairs, comfortably removed from the action and with no direct contact from the actors. This is a truly 360 degree performance with audiences seated on the floor, on chairs that turn into set and boxes that actors cheerily demand from you as and when they need. At the heart of the action is a kettle, and a packet of jammy dodgers; this is, after all, a British home. Unfortunately Callum (Jaz Hutchins) doesn’t like tea, but he’s too polite to say so the first time he returns to the home of his father who is now living with his step-mother and half-sister Katie. Callum is also black. When he tries to come home Katie (Pippa Beckwith) almost refuses to let him in. “She’s not racist, but”… she’s been brought up in a pro-Brexit family. But the half-siblings drink tea, and play twister, and eventually end up reconciled.
This isn’t the end of the line though, because as the verbatim recordings which punctuate the play testify, Katie and Callum are one family struggling among many in a post-Brexit world. As warned, we hear voices we agree with, and voices we don’t, which twist in and out of Callum and Katie’s dialogue in perfect synchronicity with sound and lighting. “My dad says he’s not a racist, but….” “Not all foreigners are bad, but…” “If I see a Muslim in an airport then yeah, I feel scared”. It’s both shocking to hear, and shocking to realise how normalised these statements have become. We can’t distinguish many of the sentences but the voices combine in a cacophony of confusion and fear and miscommunication. Callum and Katie are also integrated into extra-textual soundscape: Callum’s opening rap which rhymes crisis/Isis/like this might strike a chord with fans of the poetic and passionate cries for social justice in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s opera-rap phenomenon.
Despite the diversity of voices we hear, it’s only Callum and Katie that we ever physically see. Their father, whose imminent return looms at the end of the play, remains invisible. This struck me as ironic given that Callum articulates his feeling of displacement as one of “invisibility”. The term is a resonant one but for Katie the opposite is true: Callum has always lingered in their household, present in the souvenirs of her childhood. Nor is invisibility solely his experience: Katie is rendered invisible at a party as she drinks too much to combat her feeling of loneliness, and is then sexually abused and probably raped. Helped home by “the nice Polish guy from business studies”, her mother assumes him to be the culprit and sends him ferociously from the door. Despite its good execution, this one scene didn’t quite fit with the rest of the play. It was too sombre not to engage us deeply, yet not integrated enough to align with the emotions that Callum’s plight demanded from us in the following scenes. It’s incredibly hard to talk meaningfully about every human problem under the sun, and this moment added an emotional weight to the play it wasn’t quite strong enough to bear.
Katie’s mother never appears on stage, but we hear a lot about both her and Callum’s mother. He recites a saying of hers: “there is no beauty but in struggle”, which becomes a kind of mantra for the play. Katie’s mother would never say something like that, and she won’t even tell Katie she loves her. This is Katie’s struggle. Someone else’s struggle might be feelings of isolation, depression and experience of racial discrimination, or it might be playing twister with your half-brother sticking his bum in your face, but there’s a certain beauty in the exposition of hope and the possibility of human kindness which runs through the whole production.
No play in which audience members find themselves chummily holding cups of tea and biscuits for the actors and then actually springing to help build the set for the final scene can be said to have gone down anything but rather well. This was intimacy beyond the formal distance of theatre-in-the-round and without the structure of promenade theatre. Callum leapt over my leg on his way to chasing Katie, and she offered jammy dodgers and took selfies with the nearest audience members. Despite – or perhaps because – of being a play about division, What Once Was Ours created for a fleeting moment a genuine community among a group of strangers in a little room in Oxford. Whilst exploring some of the most pressing issues of contemporary Britain, the play has moments of pure joy and humour. Callum doesn’t like tea, but he makes some for Katie – “teabag first, then milk, just a dash” – by adding milk to a dry teabag, and topping up with luke-warm water. We laughed, and she drank it, because he meant well. There is no beauty but in struggle.
What Once Was Ours continues it’s national tour throughout 2017. For further information visit here.