“BEATS” by Kieran Hurley

at Soho Theatre, Friday 18th October 2013

“None of this is real,” Kieran Hurley tells us at the beginning of BEATS. He’s going to tell us a story, we are told, about a fifteen year-old boy and rave culture, using a DJ and VJ to help create a space in which it can happen. But though Hurley insists the tale is a fictional one, by the end of it you begin to question that idea. You can’t shake the feeling that, though the story is made up, it must have happened somewhere, to somebody, somehow. It’s a beautifully crafted, unashamedly political work, which asks us to examine notions of “collective empathy” and consider how we may find some new notion of togetherness in post-Thatcherite Britain.

The premise focusses – as Hurley tells us at the outset – on John Major’s policy of outlawing the gathering of people listening to “sounds wholly or predominantly characterized by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” (have a read of the full legislation; it’s actually pretty fascinating and, unsurprisingly, completely fucking bonkers). The writer/performer then points out that, of course, most music can be described thusly and that, sat in the Soho Theatre in London, the collective body of the audience represents a gathering of people listening to such music. In our own small way, we are dissenting, making up the more radical ideas in our heads between the trippy visuals, the Dionysian electronica and the human story – “they can’t arrest our imagination… yet.”

Sat at a desk, Hurley recounts two diverging stories. In one camp, 15 year-old Johnno is trying to find a rave with his new mates ‘D-Boy’ and ‘Scotty’ (they’ve got lost on the motorway and are too stubborn to ask for directions). In the other, a policeman – Robert – remembers old discussions with his father about historical labour movements before heading out to assist in breaking up a rave that has got out of hand. The two storylines hurtle towards each other before coming together with astonishing force, leaving only room for a passionate, exhausted epilogue. By offering up both angles, Hurley tackles generational conflict before reminding us that these terrifying, dehumanising systems trap everyone below the goons at the top.

Ok, cards on the table: I’ve never been to a rave. Not a proper one, anyway. I’ve been to a couple of festivals, clubs and house parties, but never been in attendance of what you would call “a rave”. So I have no idea how closely, for example, Jamie Wardop’s live-mixed video design matches that of its setting, or whether the music created by Hushpuppy is anything like the stuff you would hear in a damp, soggy field surrounded by sweaty bodies. But that doesn’t really matter, as the nostalgia in BEATS works on two levels, allowing those with experience to recapture some of their past and those as unaware as I to wish that we had something like that. Hurley doesn’t romanticise – there are horrific moments in here – but there is a feeling that we’ve lost some of the anger and radicalism that came out of rave culture.

The versatility of music and video also means Hurley doesn’t have to work too hard to tell this story (he ‘does the voices’ and ‘gets into character’, but that doesn’t change the fact he sits at a table the whole time). The projection, for example, gestures towards the stream of headlights on a motorway, or the bleak morning-after feeling of looking out of a window and watching the world go by. There’s a gorgeously executed moment in the Robert storyline, as he goes over the argument with his father, when we watch the refineries and towers of industrial Britain collapsing over and over again, perpetually plunging into the earth in an unstoppable assault on post-war values. As a post-Thatcher baby, I have no idea what it was like before she came along, disavowing society and turning us all into individualistic entities, but not a day goes by when I don’t long for it in some way. By destroying a notion of history, neoliberalism does this to us, separating human beings from the contexts that surrounds them and making sure we look to the past whilst blindly fumbling around in the present.

Reading back the second half of that paragraph, I’ve noticed that I kind of head off topic a bit with regards to BEATS, but that’s what the show does to you. As you fill space between the story, the video and the music, your mind goes to weird places, triggering synaptic reactions which leave you simultaneously galvanised and empty (which, from what I can glean, is at least part of the experience of going to a rave). And for all the anger, for all the drug use that goes wrong, for all the unshakeable frustration that I can’t do anything, Hurley’s show makes you feel that, yes, we are better together and that, fuck it, if those cretins running this place think they can silence us, then my Christ they’ve got another thing coming.

Which is all summed up in a beautiful piece of linguistic wizardry at the play’s close. As Hurley repeats a double negative – “It doesn’t mean nothin’” – over and over again, it shifts from a defeated, deflated statement into something far more powerful. The stresses change – though whether that’s down to Hurley or simply our ears is difficult to tell – so that it becomes a defiant provocation, refusing to accept the idea that all this is/was for “nothin'”. It doesn’t mean nothin’.

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