What If I Told You?

Written and Performed by PAULINE MAYERS

Directed by CHRIS  GOODE 

The Studio, The Royal Exchange 

Pauline Mayers is a Rambert Ballet trained dancer, a choreographer, a writer and a theatre maker. She is a Hackney girl who has travelled the World as a dancer. She is a women of a certain age who has lived through significant  physical injuries and the emotional pain of depression.  She is a performer and an experimenter and an explorer. She is a black woman who has had a mixed response from the dance world about having a black body  to channel ballet through. More recently she has also experienced the closed doors that often greet an older dancer.

Talking to her in interview recently and watching her perform this  evening there is an undoubted warmth and engagement with others that is striking. As she opens the show her gaze attempts to connect with each member of the audience with a white hot intensity. This will draw in many audience members but for some may prove uncomfortable to fully engage with.

What If I Told You? uses theatre, movement and dance to explore prejudice and the conscious and unconscious assumption around skin colour. The piece weaves elements of her personal history and dance experience with the story of Dr J.Marion Sims often referred to as the father of modern Gynaecology. 

Dr Sims practised medicine in the nineteenth century and made major discoveries in the field of Gynaecology. His work was and remains highly controversial as he used black slave women as his subjects and refused to use anaesthetic deeming them less able to feel pain than white women.

The piece uses audience interaction and participation throughout. It is most powerful as we recreate a montage of a painting of Sims with Anarcha (a patient he experimented on many times), and two other white doctors observing while two tramatised black women peek through a curtain to see what awaits them. This is the impact of the piece that has stayed with me. Imagining that Anarcha might have been Pauline and seeing a lovely young black woman I know who could have been waiting her turn. Sims and another doctor were portrayed by white middle class men I also knew. It was deeply unsettling to imagine whose shoes we might walk in, in another place or time. 

There are some very rich moments to observe and there are some lovely interactions and connections as the audience participate in the movement of the piece. There is however a frustration that in weaving these elements together so much there is a risk that the piece loses some of its impact. An hour limits some of the storytelling when we also are participants. Pauline is so engaging I wanted more of her and less of me!!

Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. Its the audience thinking and speaking and reflecting together. Its a radical act of self care and empowerment. 
The Koan completes the second half of the show and is led by poet Khadijah Ibrahiim. Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. This is an important part of the piece as it is an exploration of subjective experience and a continuation of sharing what is “sameness” as opposed to “otherness”. 

The genuine hope in What If I Told You? is that each of us leaves the space with a keener and more empathic perspective on our neighbours. 

“There are periods of history where skin colour is used as a means to separate and disconnect us. I really feel what hurts you, hurts me. We are all human beings. There is only one race.”
This is a very personal piece. Pauline says it is an invitation to walk in her shoes for an hour. As with any subjective experience this will be more potent for some than for others. This is undoubtedly painful and chilling at times however it is also celebratory. Having stubbornly fought to be recognised as a black dancer and struggled with the loss of that career this show is also a homecoming. Theatre has welcomed her as a performer and story teller and her joy and appreciation is evident in this piece.

SHOWING 19/20 JUNE


Interview with Pauline Mayers


Getting a sense of Pauline Mayers before her new show What If I Told  You opens at The Royal Exchange Studio ahead of going to The Edinburgh Festival. Warm, funny and sharply intelligent. 

What led you into dance? Did you start from an early age? 

I’ll give you two versions because there’s what I remember and what my Mother remembers. There’s being 13 and although I had a very happy childhood, things were not going quite so well at 13/14. And the only way I could be out of the house was to do something constructive so I went along with a friend to the White Lion Youth Centre in Islington….My Mum would say from an early age 7/8 she remembers me trying to tap dance. I would try to emulate Gene Kelly laughs. My Mum,”You always wanted to be a dancer.” There’s what I remember and what my Mother witnessed. So somewhere in between.

I’m actually a Psychotherapist. That’s really typical of how we remember our past and how others define our past. Often they are very different, very different stories indeed. 

YES! There’s also something about what you remember and what you tell yourself you remember laughs based on scant pieces of information you kinda make a whole- “Oh that must be what happened”…..I think memory and history are all tied up with subjectivity, almost never objective and coming from various different angles. I kind of imagine it as a big 360 degree motion capture thing. There’s yourself in the middle and you have all these cameras swirling around you and depending on where the camera is people remember that part or version of you……Certainly doing the show, this piece; and looking back on photographs of me at Secondary School. I remember me as a very quiet child yet pictures show 13 year old me with my leg cocked up as high as I could get it so I clearly was not the shy child I recall!!

Perhaps you were a shy child but movement released something in you?

I think that’s definitely true, I do, there’s an absolute exhilaration and freedom. Movement was also like a Rubik cube, a challenge to unlock and solve, and I enjoyed trying to get my body round these tricky ways of moving. The getting up and performing was always secondary to the act of developing myself as a physical being. That curiosity of what happens if I do this? It’s the absolute laboratory laughs I used to absolutely love that.

So you eventually went to The Rambert School?

My training was intense, amazing  and wondrous; also terrifying, depressing and lonely. A few teachers had a very fixed idea of what dancers should look like and I didn’t fit the look of the dancer that they were imagining in their heads.

How did you cope with that?

It was my drive to be the thing that I wanted to be. My philosophy was I’m paying the same amount of fees as everyone else so I’m going to take your information and I’m going to be like a sponge and be this thing that you say I can’t be!!

That makes sense from a psychological perspective. We tend to adapt or rebel!

Absolutely! A teacher saying “Oh Pauline dear. Go to the back of the class. You really can’t do this.” I remember saying, “I can’t do it yet but the point of being here is that you teach me so I can!”

You were clearly there for a reason…

I think I felt if I didn’t do the dancing I would die…..It was a matter of life and death. How I felt when I danced was euphoric, falling in love, it was like I could be me….. I’ve tried to leave dance a number of times in the last few years. I can’t do anything else- not in a negative way but in a – I would not be me if I don’t do it.

You left dance in 2011 and moved into choreography. Was that about what’s happens to dancers at a certain age?

Absolutely. It’s a very big question especially for certain forms of dance. I came up against a wall of NO. I had all these amazing experiences dancing travelling around the World. I had an extensive set of skills and yet I was being told NO.. I was 41 and I’ve done this thing called Dance but I’m not being respected for that. I wasn’t being listened to. I wasn’t even being acknowledged.

That can happen to women of a certain age and you weren’t that old!!!

When it comes down to people of colour it’s like the Highlander effect. There can be only One! It really felt like I wasn’t that one. It felt like me coming in and wanting to tell unique stories was not needed because we’ve already got our person. I needed to walk away for my own sanity. In 2011 I shut the door on dance. It felt like theatre welcomed me with absolutely open arms. I had all these extraordinary collaborations. I realised I can contribute, The ideas I have in my head create value to any collaboration I do. So between 2011-2015 I worked solidly whereas 2005-2011 I was constantly on the dole!!!

So the rules in dance and theatre seem very different?

In the theatre I was just this curious bird who just wanted to find things out from people and that was ok. I could investigate like in a laboratory. In dance arenas only certain people were given permission to frame those questions. 

I’m intrigued- through out our conversation you’ve mentioned terms like experimenting, investigating, curiosity. I know you mention Dr J Marion Sims in the piece- what made you reference his experiments?

His experiments had an air of theatrics. He wanted an audience and doctors came from all over to see him create these tortuous gynaecological  experiments or mutilations on black women. He thought they felt no pain so used no ether. Even for his time what he did was extreme. He was a celebrity surgeon using black slave women as they were not valued.

How do you move between such a grim story and the lighter moments in your show?

I think it’s  humourMy own story could be seen as really grim laughs Right- young girl from Hackney leaves home at 15, ended up being a dancer til 30, then being freelance then 7 years having no money and bailiffs at the door, having depression and then the last 6 years full of amazing work. I love laughing and the joy of hearing people laugh.

So how did you come to work with Chris Goode?

Huge laughter…I had decided to go into theatre. I had a Twitter account but no real idea of its  power. I was up at 1am and this tweet from West Yorkshire Playhouse said first person to tweet back gets a wristband for TRANSFORM 2011. Chris was doing something called ‘open house’-based around Our Town come and join- you can observe or take part. I hadn’t noticed last bit and being a dutiful dancer turned up with notebook and pen.I thought I’d be observing how theatre is made but I opened the door to Chris and a group of actors sat in a circle. He gave me the biggest smile and said “Hello would you like to come and join us?” Before I knew what was happening I was involved with all the experimentation with the actors and then performed with them that night!! I went back another 2 nights and it was the most exhilarating thing I had done in a really long time.

Amazing!

Chris is extraordinary. He never leads the way you would imagine.The people in the room have all the skills and the attributes within them. They just need a space explore that so Chris was holding the space for all of us to meet, to be curious and to experiment and look at questions-What if….? Shall we…..? Such beautiful open language .. He then invited me to work with him again at Mayfest in Bristol and again at TRANSFORM 2012. It’s the curiosity. Nothing is quite as it seems because its not.

I find that process fascinating. Like light bulb moments.

Yes absolutely. I think he has a very unique gift. Virtually everyone I have met who works with him have opened out and jumped forward. It’s quite spectacular the way he brings people together at a crossroads in their lives. They are somehow transformed working with him. Working with him felt like the Universe opened up for me in a way I’d never seen before…And it continues to do this to this day and I feel it’s from that very first experience of working with him.

In “What if I told you?” are you aiming to facilitate that kind of experience for the audience?

Yes I suppose in a way.

Your show sounds like full on audience partipation.

 It is. I prefer to term it as an experience of walking in my shoes.

Ok

Audience participation can be limiting. You can ask them to do a task and they may or not do it. I feel we are all being story tellers in the space. We are creating and recreating moments from my life and moments from the past to inform where we go from this moment on. We are creating a memory together. That what the show does is the conduit to the Koan which is the second half of the show and is more important.

Koan?

Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. It’s the audience thinking and speaking and reflecting together. It’s a radical act of self care and empowerment. The space is held by a facilitator who leads the discussion, the poet Khadijh Ibrahiim. It enables people to have a space to pause and reflect – Now I’ve seen this what does it mean to be human?

Are you present in the room during the Koan or do you step away?

I’m nowhere to be seen!!!laughs Thats a very conscious thought. I’ve done my bit! I’ve given my experience and had the audience live in my shoes for an hour.

Perhaps you need time to process that too…..

 What I want is for the audience to come to their own conclusion. They already have a sense of the idea of colour prejudice as ridiculous. Yet we are still dealing with the complexities of it. We are using a very loaded term by using the term race. We are imagining it far bigger and greater than the actual act of racism is. The slave trade was about making money and eventually racism was tied into that. There are periods of history where skin colour is used as a means to separate and disconnect us. I really feel what hurts you, hurts me. We are all human beings. There is only one race.

Slavery went on for 400 years, The mass movement of people from an entire continent in a machine-like way. It sought to eradicate the history and culture if a continent and replace it with something that never came from there.

When something happens on that huge a scale for that long it can almost start to lose its true impact. It’s too big.

Absolutely. In What If I Told You I want to say to people we are human beings first and foremost. We love. We hate. We forgive. We have empathy and  compassion in equal measure. What’s your experience? What’s mine? How do they connect? What’s the common denominator? And then move forward from that- we might have a chance to really talk about this in ways that we need to talk in order to heal.

If one person goes to What If I Told You  and is changed by that experience and says “I’m thinking differently about skin colour and I want to share that with others” then I have done exactly what I set out to do.

It feels like a really timely piece to be performed especially here in Manchester.

We love and we hate. It’s a piece that grows with time not diminishes. It’s a piece to reflect on. People are surprised by the horror of it, by the joy of it, by the challenge of it.

I look forward to seeing it Pauline. Good luck with taking it to The Edinburgh Festival.

Thanks.
SHOWING AT THE ROYAL EXCHANGE STUDIO 19/20  JUNE  

Interview with Pauline Mayers 

Getting a sense of Pauline Mayers before her new show What If I Told  You opens at The Royal Exchange Studio ahead of going to The Edinburgh Festival. Warm, funny and sharply intelligent. 

What led you into dance? Did you start from an early age? 

I’ll give you two versions because there’s what I remember and what my Mother remembers. There’s being 13 and although I had a very happy childhood, things were not going quite so well at 13/14. And the only way I could be out of the house was to do something constructive so I went along with a friend to the White Lion Youth Centre in Islington….My Mum would say from an early age 7/8 she remembers me trying to tap dance. I would try to emulate Gene Kelly laughs. My Mum,”You always wanted to be a dancer.” There’s what I remember and what my Mother witnessed. So somewhere in between.

I’m actually a Psychotherapist. That’s really typical of how we remember our past and how others define our past. Often they are very different, very different stories indeed. 

YES! There’s also something about what you remember and what you tell yourself you remember laughs based on scant pieces of information you kinda make a whole- “Oh that must be what happened”…..I think memory and history are all tied up with subjectivity, almost never objective and coming from various different angles. I kind of imagine it as a big 360 degree motion capture thing. There’s yourself in the middle and you have all these cameras swirling around you and depending on where the camera is people remember that part or version of you……Certainly doing the show, this piece; and looking back on photographs of me at Secondary School. I remember me as a very quiet child yet pictures show 13 year old me with my leg cocked up as high as I could get it so I clearly was not the shy child I recall!!

Perhaps you were a shy child but movement released something in you?

I think that’s definitely true, I do, there’s an absolute exhilaration and freedom. Movement was also like a Rubik cube, a challenge to unlock and solve, and I enjoyed trying to get my body round these tricky ways of moving. The getting up and performing was always secondary to the act of developing myself as a physical being. That curiosity of what happens if I do this? It’s the absolute laboratory laughs I used to absolutely love that.

So you eventually went to The Rambert School?

My training was intense, amazing  and wondrous; also terrifying, depressing and lonely. A few teachers had a very fixed idea of what dancers should look like and I didn’t fit the look of the dancer that they were imagining in their heads.

How did you cope with that?

It was my drive to be the thing that I wanted to be. My philosophy was I’m paying the same amount of fees as everyone else so I’m going to take your information and I’m going to be like a sponge and be this thing that you say I can’t be!!

That makes sense from a psychological perspective. We tend to adapt or rebel!

Absolutely! A teacher saying “Oh Pauline dear. Go to the back of the class. You really can’t do this.” I remember saying, “I can’t do it yet but the point of being here is that you teach me so I can!”

You were clearly there for a reason…

I think I felt if I didn’t do the dancing I would die…..It was a matter of life and death. How I felt when I danced was euphoric, falling in love, it was like I could be me….. I’ve tried to leave dance a number of times in the last few years. I can’t do anything else- not in a negative way but in a – I would not be me if I don’t do it.

You left dance in 2011 and moved into choreography. Was that about what’s happens to dancers at a certain age?

Absolutely. It’s a very big question especially for certain forms of dance. I came up against a wall of NO. I had all these amazing experiences dancing travelling around the World. I had an extensive set of skills and yet I was being told NO.. I was 41 and I’ve done this thing called Dance but I’m not being respected for that. I wasn’t being listened to. I wasn’t even being acknowledged.

That can happen to women of a certain age and you weren’t that old!!!

When it comes down to people of colour it’s like the Highlander effect. There can be only One! It really felt like I wasn’t that one. It felt like me coming in and wanting to tell unique stories was not needed because we’ve already got our person. I needed to walk away for my own sanity. In 2011 I shut the door on dance. It felt like theatre welcomed me with absolutely open arms. I had all these extraordinary collaborations. I realised I can contribute, The ideas I have in my head create value to any collaboration I do. So between 2011-2015 I worked solidly whereas 2005-2011 I was constantly on the dole!!!

So the rules in dance and theatre seem very different?

In the theatre I was just this curious bird who just wanted to find things out from people and that was ok. I could investigate like in a laboratory. In dance arenas only certain people were given permission to frame those questions. 

I’m intrigued- through out our conversation you’ve mentioned terms like experimenting, investigating, curiosity. I know you mention Dr J Marion Sims in the piece- what made you reference his experiments?

His experiments had an air of theatrics. He wanted an audience and doctors came from all over to see him create these tortuous gynaecological  experiments or mutilations on black women. He thought they felt no pain so used no ether. Even for his time what he did was extreme. He was a celebrity surgeon using black slave women as they were not valued.

How do you move between such a grim story and the lighter moments in your show?

I think it’s  humour. My own story could be seen as really grim laughs Right- young girl from Hackney leaves home at 15, ended up being a dancer til 30, then being freelance then 7 years having no money and bailiffs at the door, having depression and then the last 6 years full of amazing work. I love laughing and the joy of hearing people laugh.

So how did you come to work with Chris Goode?

Huge laughter…I had decided to go into theatre. I had a Twitter account but no real idea of its  power. I was up at 1am and this tweet from West Yorkshire Playhouse said first person to tweet back gets a wristband for TRANSFORM 2011. Chris was doing something called ‘open house’-based around Our Town come and join- you can observe or take part. I hadn’t noticed last bit and being a dutiful dancer turned up with notebook and pen.I thought I’d be observing how theatre is made but I opened the door to Chris and a group of actors sat in a circle. He gave me the biggest smile and said “Hello would you like to come and join us?” Before I knew what was happening I was involved with all the experimentation with the actors and then performed with them that night!! I went back another 2 nights and it was the most exhilarating thing I had done in a really long time.

Amazing!

Chris is extraordinary. He never leads the way you would imagine.The people in the room have all the skills and the attributes within them. They just need a space explore that so Chris was holding the space for all of us to meet, to be curious and to experiment and look at questions-What if….? Shall we…..? Such beautiful open language .. He then invited me to work with him again at Mayfest in Bristol and again at TRANSFORM 2012. It’s the curiosity. Nothing is quite as it seems because its not.

I find that process fascinating. Like light bulb moments.

Yes absolutely. I think he has a very unique gift. Virtually everyone I have met who works with him have opened out and jumped forward. It’s quite spectacular the way he brings people together at a crossroads in their lives. They are somehow transformed working with him. Working with him felt like the Universe opened up for me in a way I’d never seen before…And it continues to do this to this day and I feel it’s from that very first experience of working with him.

In “What if I told you?” are you aiming to facilitate that kind of experience for the audience?

Yes I suppose in a way.

Your show sounds like full on audience partipation.

 It is. I prefer to term it as an experience of walking in my shoes.

Ok

Audience participation can be limiting. You can ask them to do a task and they may or not do it. I feel we are all being story tellers in the space. We are creating and recreating moments from my life and moments from the past to inform where we go from this moment on. We are creating a memory together. That what the show does is the conduit to the Koan which is the second half of the show and is more important.

Koan?

Koan is a Japanese word for public thought. It’s the audience thinking and speaking and reflecting together. It’s a radical act of self care and empowerment. The space is held by a facilitator who leads the discussion, the poet Khadijh Ibrahiim. It enables people to have a space to pause and reflect – Now I’ve seen this what does it mean to be human?

Are you present in the room during the Koan or do you step away?

I’m nowhere to be seen!!!laughs Thats a very conscious thought. I’ve done my bit! I’ve given my experience and had the audience live in my shoes for an hour.

Perhaps you need time to process that too…..

 What I want is for the audience to come to their own conclusion. They already have a sense of the idea of colour prejudice as ridiculous. Yet we are still dealing with the complexities of it. We are using a very loaded term by using the term race. We are imagining it far bigger and greater than the actual act of racism is. The slave trade was about making money and eventually racism was tied into that. There are periods of history where skin colour is used as a means to separate and disconnect us. I really feel what hurts you, hurts me. We are all human beings. There is only one race.

Slavery went on for 400 years, The mass movement of people from an entire continent in a machine-like way. It sought to eradicate the history and culture if a continent and replace it with something that never came from there.

When something happens on that huge a scale for that long it can almost start to lose its true impact. It’s too big.

Absolutely. In What If I Told You I want to say to people we are human beings first and foremost. We love. We hate. We forgive. We have empathy and  compassion in equal measure. What’s your experience? What’s mine? How do they connect? What’s the common denominator? And then move forward from that- we might have a chance to really talk about this in ways that we need to talk in order to heal.

If one person goes to What If I Told You  and is changed by that experience and says “I’m thinking differently about skin colour and I want to share that with others” then I have done exactly what I set out to do.

It feels like a really timely piece to be performed especially here in Manchester.

We love and we hate. It’s a piece that grows with time not diminishes. It’s a piece to reflect on. People are surprised by the horror of it, by the joy of it, by the challenge of it.

I look forward to seeing it Pauline. Good luck with taking it to The Edinburgh Festival.

Thanks.
SHOWING AT THE ROYAL EXCHANGE STUDIO 19/20  JUNE  

A Spanish Adventure

THE EDGE THEATRE

Written and Directed by Janine Waters

Music and Lyrics by Simon Waters 

“Welcome to the mass movement of giving a toss about stuff” Julie Hesmondhalgh, Patron, The Edge.

It’s 1936 and the far right are threatening the existence of a small family run art centre in the days before the Spanish Civil War.  It is an easy leap to today and the ongoing erosion of arts Funding in Britain. Community Arts organisations such as The Edge do battle every day to keep their doors open and get funding to make Art that really makes a difference.

Today was testament to when it all comes together and something wonderful happens. This afternoon a welcoming Dressing Room cafe and a flowery garden and cosy red theatre space was filled to capacity to celebrate The Arts Council money being well spent. The 3 year association between The Edge and The Booth Centre has flourished. 

The Booth Centre Theatre Company filled the space with drama, music, dance and mime. The show was funny, clever and provocative throughout. The cheers and claps at the end were not polite but well earned and infectious. 

I talked to one of the especially impressive performers afterwards. Catherine Bowen-Colthurst has both volunteered at The Booth Centre and been a service user. The benefits and opportunities in theatre which she has experienced are obvious. As is her quiet delight in her involvement and the diligence and talent which she brought to her performance.

The afternoon ended in Patron Julie Hesmondhalgh opening the new studio space as The Edge adventure on another day and hopefully never have to close their doors through lack of funding.

Saturday 17th June

BEARS


Image by Chris Payne

 

A Powder Keg and Royal Exchange Co-Production

Royal Exchange Studio

The stage looks like a rundown bear pen in a post- apocalyptic zoo. Despite the welcome mat this is clearly no cosy Bear home that Goldilocks has chanced upon. The Bears are styled in the fashion of Mad Max meets well worn patched up teddy bears. They are both bizarre and delightful as they set their dinner table to eat salt and peppered KitKat with knives and forks. These are civilised bears adopting human behaviours in a no longer civilised world.

We want people to see a piece that is about climate change without it preaching to them or without it fearmongering to the point where people just turn away from it. I think that is one of the main reasons a lot of people don’t focus on climate change as one of the overriding problems of the world.
Powder Keg won the 2016 Hodgkiss Award to develop this piece about climate change and conservation. It is not remotely preachy –  especially as the bears do not speak any words. It is however a humorous and at times enchanting look at the impact of consumerist waste. We may smile as the bears playfully try out a variety of aerosol deodorants then casually throw them away. We might be amused as they scramble through boxes of rubbish bearing high street brands like Cafe Nero or Starbucks. The message is however very clear. We have choked the planet with waste to the point where we have been extinguished and now the last animals left know nothing other than to emulate their destroyers.

The physicality and movement of the performers is deft, and effective in evoking the bears in their habitat. The cast have created 3 very watchable bears however the pacing needs some work as the middle 20 minutes flounders needing further dramatic development. The last section picks up pace and with a clever use of lighting and more of an already good soundscape it develops to a striking conclusion.

There are some beautiful moments as the bears play and scavenge and squabble. The most striking moment is perhaps the magical use of fairy lights. Ultimately so poignant and heartrending as they become like barbed wire enveloping  the tragic, bewildered animal.

The use of brightness and darkness works effectively to portray the last gasps of our technological world. The closing scene of the bears downsizing their home bangs home a powerful message about the shrinking icecaps. These bears are the natural descendants of those earlier cuddly eco creatures The Wombles. Sadly 40 years on and we seem to still need reminding that our planet remains in crisis.

Operation Black Antler

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HOME MCR

Devised and Produced by

Blast Theory and Hydrocracker

It is 1983 and I’m sitting my A Levels and dating a British soldier who turns out to be doing undercover surveillance around the Border in Northern Ireland. Fast forward to 2017 and my son is studying for his A Levels and I’m about to go undercover as part of a state surveillance operation in Manchester.

Friday afternoon and my Handler texts me a meeting point to rendezvous with the rest of my undercover team. At 7.45pm we gather and wait uncertainly for our instructions. Paranoia is already setting in as I assess the group and zero in on two individuals who might be participants like me but who might just be actors planted in the group.

The lines are blurring as another text sends us to a dingy location and our Handler suggests we make tea as an ice-breaker. People are moving around. A van door opens and I catch a glimpse of a hunched figure before it slams shut. We head upstairs to the briefing room and a very convincing Richard Hahlo rattles through the details of the covert operation. Images of POIs (Persons of interest) are shown and we are bombarded with intelligence on them. My Handler is matter of fact as he calmly reminds us that we do whatever we feel necessary to extract intelligence. The underlying inference is WHATEVER it takes.  I start to feel like I know what is expected of me and adrenaline kicks in.

Divided into small groups we develop our cover stories. Deciding who we are going to be starts to uncover lots of details about who we actually are and what we are comfortable  sharing with strangers. The groups head off separately to infiltrate a social event full  of right wing extremists. Drinks ordered at the bar and we enter the crowded venue and start to mix. It is hot and loud and difficult to tell who are actors, audience or just normal Friday night punters.

After a while chatting with guests we finally get into conversation with our POI  who is hard as nails yet warm and funny too. The disarming part of the performance is mixing with people who hold views that I find abhorrent yet finding myself warming to some of them. At one point my team mate and I hold an animated conversation with “Lisa” about how great it is to have the D.U.P have sway in parliament. We enthuse about their anti-gay views and pro-life stance. The striking point to this is that we both appear at ease with this perspective. We have never met before tonight yet we both come from Northern Ireland and are a similar age but whereas I grew up Protestant on the Border, she was a Catholic from Derry. The sense of blending in to survive in a hostile environment was unnervingly familiar and we both felt like kindred spirits through the whole experience.

The night passed quickly and people ebb and flow building the sense of confusion over who is “safe”. I get caught in a tussle and “Lisa” and I get soaked with a G &T, a bloke gets threatened with a pool cue and we get offered napkins and fairy cakes. Intelligence gathered we are told to exit to safety. Outside the bloke who spilt my drink insists on an overly long, apologetic hug and whispers he will see me at the next Meet. I feel dirty and triumphant. Meeting another undercover operative we have to make decisions that may change lives forever. It is the power and subtlety of Operation Black Antler that ensures we really do become deep swimmers in a very murky world.

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Speaking to Director Matt Adams from Blast Theory afterwards it is clear how much thought, effort and nuance has been put into developing this production. As with any immersive theatre you only get out what you put in to the performance. I found it very powerful and as I chatted to Matt Adams about growing up in the blurred boundaries of sectarian life on the Northern Irish border and the implications of Brexit and GE17, it was crystal clear how valuable this experience was. It is a sobering reminder of how easy it is to shift our moral compass to accommodate our environment, but at what cost?

At HOME until 17 June

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Persuasion

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Caroline Moroney, Samuel Edward-Cook and Cassie Layton in Persuasion. Credit Johan Persson

Royal Exchange, Manchester

By Jane Austen

Adapted by Jeff James with James Yeatman

Directed by Jeff James

Persuasion might just be close to Perfection. This modern take on a two hundred year old Jane Austen novel by Jeff James is a gloriously uplifting froth fest. In the beautiful old Royal Exchange building sits a perfectly placed modern theatre and inside it James amps up the volume on a brilliant Frank Ocean soundtrack and ditches the bonnets for bikinis and the breeches for speedos.

“Penelope, turn the music down! I can hardly hear myself think over your harpsichord!” The opening line sets the tone for this production. This is a sharply observed perceptive rom com which uses Austen’s analysis of constancy in love and marriage. Married Mary is shrewish and discontented,  true to the original and yet as easily at home in John Lewis or the Knutsford Aldi. Sir Walter is narcissistic and fighting his advancing years like a bare-chested Mick Jagger strutting round Cannes rather than taking the waters in Bath. The deliciously carefree Louisa and Henrietta are every naïve young girl out for a good time seduced by the idea of love rather than the reality.

Alex Lowde has created a stunning lightbox platform which scissors out to function as a a kind of fashion catwalk for a sports/luxe collection S/S2017 and an Essex nightclub. The high point being when the tide comes in and high spirits and wanton ways flood the stage in a stunning spectacle which probably has most of the audience contemplating joining the cast on stage.

The strong sense of camaraderie is apparent from early on. The cast sit in the auditorium merging into the audience and casually strip down and change costumes so it seems like  we have joined them in their dressing rooms. The result is spontaneous applause as Anne and Wentworth finally get it together.

The whole cast seem to be having a blast. Man mad Cassie Layton and Caroline Moroney  can sparkle and fizz with energy or sway on the dance floor like mannequin autobots.  Samuel Edward-Cook and Lara Rossi are convincing as the lovers hoping to reunite even as Anne struggles to “want to want again”. The whole production has great comic timing and uses Austen’s dry wit to great effect.

Love and Constancy win the day as a mature, reflective Anne who can also dance like a demon and flick irritants off the stage, gets the relationship she wants. Persuasion is all about the love and the importance of trusting ourselves in decisions of the heart. That is as relevant today as in Austen’s lifetime.

At The Royal Exchange until 24 June