RSC Making Mischief festival gets under way
The Making Mischief Festival in Stratford upon Avon features work playwrights who are challenging and questioning society. But who are they?
When the Royal Shakespeare Company asked British writers to consider what is 'unsayable' in the 21st century, among those taking on the challenge were Somalia Seaton and Fraser Grace.
Both have tackled the brief for a month-long run at the Other Place studio in theatre heartland, Stratford-Upon Avon.
The result is Seaton’s Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier, which looks at racially motivated violence in a south London school. And Grace’s Always Orange, which assesses one city’s grapple with fear after a terror attack, and how to be human in a world always on the edge.
These are prescient themes with the apparent rise in hate crimes post the vote to leave the European Union, and appalling atrocities committed across global cities in recent months.
A cross-cast of six will perform the plays between 27 July and 27 August.
Seaton was born and raised in Lewisham, south London, the daughter of a Jamaican father and Nigerian mother. The 31-year-old artist trained initially as a theatre practitioner, before deciding that she “hated” everyone (she says laughing down the phone) and no longer wanted to act. She only took to writing after regaling a story to a mentor, who encouraged her to put pen to paper. Seaton has since had work staged at London haunts including The Yard, Soho Theatre and The Lyric. Her debut play, Crowning Glory, about how ethnic minority women are perceived in western society, received glowing reviews.
Seaton’s reaction to the RSC’s “unsayable” brief was to come up with a series of statements as conversation starters. Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier sprung out from the remark ‘neoliberalism is more dangerous to cultural harmony in the UK than the far right’. The play focuses on a school teacher, Hawkins, who encounters lurking truths behind a “veneer of community cohesion” following an attack on one of her students. Seaton had taken particular interest in the Government’s prevent strategy, which looks to tackle the problem of terrorism at its roots. Critics say the scheme causes suspicion in classroom, with teachers obliged to refer pupils to the police they believe could be engaging in radical behaviour.
Seaton, speaking from a taxi on route to rehearsal in North London for a separate project, believes the UK is yet to confront uncomfortable aspects of its history, including its colonial past. She argues this reserved British culture means unspoken truths are rarely aired and people are “scared” to connect with each other, leading to a highly pregnable sense of harmony as demonstrated by the 2011 riots. The idea hate crimes have only come into existence post Brexit is utterly wrong, she adds.
“These things have always existed in our British culture, and it’s just that it’s outside of the mind for a lot of us. I think we live in a very dangerous pressure cooker society… and at any point in time it could erupt like the riots erupted.”
Seaton believes a failure to speak about Britain’s history, “white imperialism” and power structures within society are “nonsensical”. Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier explores these themes, and has been updated to factor in recent contemporary developments, including the EU referendum result. We speak as new figures are released showing more than 6,000 alleged hate crimes and incidents were reported to police since the middle of June, prompting a review of how police forces handle such offences. On the Brexit vote, Seaton argues people now feel “more secure and empowered to spread hate”, but argues the antipathy towards immigration and the EU is by no means a new phenomenon.
“We didn’t just arrive at that. It’s years of a certain rhetoric being fed through the media, fear being fed through the media, fear being fed through our government. And it seems really cleverly orchestrated, here we are, regular working class people and middle class liberals feeling like we need to leave. I just think it’s a shame.”
Seaton sees her writing as her own form of “activism” shown through her willingness to tackle taboos, and she maintains the arts can “help shift our collective psyche”.
Fraser Grace began work on Always Orange after Islamic State militants beheaded hostages in 2014. As with previous projects, he put the first draft in the drawer for a month before returning to it, seeing if his words had stood the test of time. By January 2015, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Grace returned to the script, regretfully galvanised. Eighteen months later, a spate of attacks across the globe, from Istanbul to Iraq, Paris to Orlando, Nice to Ansbach, have followed.
Always Orange explores the effect on society resulting from a terror attack: the impulse to pull up the drawbridge, consolidate against a future incident. The play looks at the “pressure on our freedoms” and the closure of public spaces such as libraries following the terror incident. Empathy and a sense of community are replaced with fear, with one man’s grapple to restore tolerance the centre of the play. Grace believes the liberal left must make the arguments for cohesion now before such an attack takes place, or risk insularity taking over.
“I think we’re probably a lot better at looking at what we want to defend and actually not very good, on the liberal left, looking at the threat itself and really allowing ourselves to understand the context we’re living in,” he explains from his house in Cambridgeshire.
“Unless you engage with that and win those arguments then when an attack does come argument and debate almost goes out of the window, because the imperative and the demand for protection becomes unstoppable, almost at whatever cost. Then we’re in a very dangerous space.”
Grace, 50, grew up in Derbyshire. His first major success came in 2006, when his play Breakfast with Mugabe (first produced by the RSC) won the John Whiting Best Play Award. It has since travelled across the pond for a run in New York. Grace now teaches at the University of Birmingham.
Like Seaton, the RSC’s brief is in line with Grace’s usual work process – he says he writes “about things I don’t understand or I find terrifying”. He insists it is important to “engage with rather than look away from difficult subjects”.
He retains a belief that theatre and the arts can help stir debate, and provide an often necessary and diminishing opportunity for reflection.
“The thing about theatre is it is a “collective experience”. That is a whole bunch of people in one place, at one time, that’s kind of how it works. And experiencing something together and then hopefully talking about it. So just that, just the thing of bringing people together to look at something is a hugely powerful thing.
“I think it’s one of our shrinking pools of opportunities for that.”
Always Orange and Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier are showing at the Making Mischief Festival from 27 July – 27 August. Buy tickets here.