It always feels somewhat contrived and hubristic to try and find running themes within the shows selected each year for NSDF. As we are told many times, there is no curation that takes place on the part of the selectors and so any running ideas that emerge are purely coincidental. It doesn’t take too much of a leap, however, to suggest that the questions being asked by shows at the festival are representative of those being asked by student theatre as a whole.
Two major themes stuck out this year; complicity and inertia, with most shows demonstrating some kind of appreciation for one or the other with a couple of crossovers.
n. Involvement as an accomplice in a questionable act.
Two of the most exciting and debated productions were Pornography and Stacy, both of which asked an audience to consider the way in which they help (or helped) the events depicted on stage. There is a clear difference in tense between the two plays, however; Simon Stephens asks us to look back at an important time in modern British history in order to consider the ways in which we were a part of the events of the week of 7/7, while Jack Thorne’s monologue makes an audience increasingly aware that they are a part of Rob’s plan to get Stacy back. In George Want’s and Laura Woodward’s productions respectively, audience members were eyeballed by the characters, who tried to win them round even though they may be terrorists or rapists.
God of Carnage also makes a middle-class audience like the one in Scarborough feel somewhat responsible and guilty of the kind of monstrosity depicted by Reza. Though an audience isn’t in any way a part of the action (especially in Rory McGregor’s production, which sometimes tried a little too hard to be naturalistic), it’s not too hard to imagine ourselves partaking in similar scenes in our own homes.
At its climax, Mercury Fur asks the audience to place itself as part of the horrific events on stage; though we know that what we are watching is fiction in a theatre, we still watch in stunned silence as Naz is mauled and beaten and human beings are murdered. How much different, though, would this be if it was real life? Nadia Amico’s production, set in the round, made us look at other audience members so that we weren’t just watching the play, but also the reactions of others in the space.
101 also questioned the complicity of the audience member. As with all immersive theatre, it raised the question of how much agency the audience members actually has when faced with what seems to be a more liberating theatrical experience. In fitting with the source material of the piece, however, audiences were also suppressed so that not that much interaction was allowed. How much were audience, then, responsible for events enacted upon or by them? Or were they just at the mercy of the makers, acting as a symbol for the powerful elite, who tightly controlled their freedom so that all complicity was removed?
n. The state of being inert; disinclination to move or act.
Both Nottingham New Theatre’s production of The Memory of Water and Arts Educational’s Tatty Tales showed characters unable to picture themselves in a different state of being, either due to grief or social class. In the former, Mary felt powerless to change events in her life and lacked worth as a middle-aged woman, while most of the inhabitants of Salty Shore were restricted both geographically and socially.
One of the most interesting facets of Breman Rajkumar’s The Babysitter was Nikki’s inability to find a place outside of her family. Katie Caddick’s subtle portrayal showed a young woman struggling to place herself in the world, being forced to pay rent by her parents and unable to get a grip on employment. The text, in a sentimental wishy-washy kind of way, suggests the importance of family over all other aspects of life, but this does not hide the fact that Nikki is subjected to a state of inertia.
The Lee storyline in Peter Bradley’s production of Jerusalem seemed to stick out, too, as we saw a character wishing to move away from his repetitive, dull life at home to more exciting adventures in Australia. During the discussion the company admitted that they didn’t actually think Lee moves at all at the end of the play, lending an even more pessimistic tone to an already cynical production.
And one of the most exciting aspects of Facehunters was the way in which it showed a perpetual state of inertia for young people in Austerity Britain. Each of the main characters drank and drugged themselves into oblivion in order to forget a life without meaning, and the images created in Matthew Reynolds’ production showed the individual set against the collective, capturing the idea that each of us feels alone in a world full of sheep.
Ideas of complicity and inertia fit together well, asking us to each consider our own involvement in creating a fragmented and stagnant nation. Though many of the theatrical techniques used this week left much to be desired, and there was often a frustrating conservativism displayed by many participants at the festival, a clear question came through over the course of the week: ‘How have we, collectively, allowed this state of affairs to come into existence?’