written by Maddy Costa
Yes, it is sometimes hard to imagine a future
the world feels fractured and in trouble
sometimes it feels as if the lights are about to go out
In fact the light does go out. Three times, always with extensive warning. A light will go out and when it goes out –
But what kind of light is it?
I don’t know that this is the question as it’s spoken. The woman asking it speaks using British Sign Language: to understand her, I rely on the quick translation of careful interpreters, Sue MacLaine and Mark Schofield. BSL is very specific, the speaker argues: it would let you know what type of light it is. But here there is nothing to help you understand, and that leaves the imagination disengaged.
Andy Smith has such a distinctive voice. I don’t mean accent, but how he accentuates, how he makes language muscular yet pliant. Even when he’s not performing his work – and Summit, he writes in his programme note, “marks the moment when I have found the courage to write words for people other than myself to speak” – his voice is audible in the phrasing, the cadence, the solicitude, the repetition, the pause and patient rhythm of his texts. When Aleasha Chaunte speaks his words in Summit, she sounds like Andy. When Nima Taleghani speaks his words, he sounds like Andy. I can’t tell how much Stephen Collins speaks like Andy, because he speaks using BSL.
We’re at a summit, Collins says, bringing both hands together before him, fingers stretched up like the prongs of a crown, thumbs pressed inwards. A summit in a room a lot like this one. We, the audience, are attending the summit, too. A summit to think about how we all live. A summit to think about how we take responsibility for how we all live. A summit to think about how we could be, should be, need to be brave enough, hopeful enough, to take responsibility for changing how we all live, even though those changes might not be visible or audible or tangible or felt for a century, a millennium, from now.
Before he collaborated with actors, Andy focused on “collaborating with myself, then eventually, slowly, with the audiences who came to see the work”. Like Summit, his 2012 text Commonwealth begins with describing its setting as “a room like this in a building like this”. The Preston Bill, first performed in 2015, declares the room the north of England. “Being some other place is what this space can do really well,” he said at the beginning of that text. “It’s what we can do well, in here.” Each of Andy’s texts is a direct address that relies on others’ imaginative contribution – our implicit side of the dialogue – to live.
In Summit there comes a point when that dialogue is ruptured, or challenged, or withheld. The middle section – set five years before the summit, the gathering that changed everything – is very deliberately crafted so that the languages don’t mesh. There is English. There is Farsi. There is BSL. Each language takes its turn, and even if the impression is given that the text in each is essentially the same, there is something potentially alienating about it. (At the performance I attended, a group of deaf people gave up on paying attention at this point and just started speaking to each other, limbs rapidly slicing the air in what became an unexpected play within the play.) This section has the heavy, jagged feel of the world as it is now: divided, divisive, lacking cohesion. Everyone wanting, demanding, centre stage, holding forth in the spotlight, photosynthesising its power.
A room in which a light goes out.
A room in which three people speak, in a multitude of languages: not just English, Farsi and BSL, but French, Finnish, languages I can’t even guess at, more than I could count.
Not fractured but inclusive, welcoming, open.
A room a lot like
A room in which the lights are bright and the air is chilled. Mismatched seats stretched in a circle. To hear in here requires concentration, a leaning in: people put their hand up before speaking, not in deference to some higher authority, but with respect and regard for each other. I’ve never conducted a bilingual Theatre Club before. Along one edge of the circle, hearing members of the audience; across another, a large group of deaf people, between them speaking a variety of sign languages, many of them alerted to the show by Nadia Nadarajah, the local engagement specialist doing outreach work for Fuel, Summit’s producers.
Some people have come to this post-show conversation with a problem, or a set of frustrations, a feeling perhaps that Andy’s play wasn’t entirely clear to them. “You might find it confusing,” he writes in the programme note. “That’s fine. I hope that the play is a starting point.”
In this room, the play is the starting point for a far-reaching conversation about language, politics and power. About the unexpected similarities between some of Andy’s phrases and the meaningless sloganeering of the Tory general election campaign, the words strong and stable wielded like bludgeons yet weightless, hollow. About president of the EU commission Jean-Claude Juncker’s comment at a meeting of European diplomats just a few days before: “I will express myself in French because, slowly but surely, English is losing importance in Europe”, and what might have been compacted in the spaces between those words. About nuance, and how it seems to be absent from any conversation about the EU referendum vote (I still can’t bring myself to use the word Brexit) or day-to-day British politics. About Farsi, the complexities of how it’s spoken, not only vocally, physically, phrased through the body, the suspicion that has accrued around the languages of the Middle East, and the complexions too.
In this room the play is the starting point for something more than a conversation: a demonstration of how we can seek to understand each other, make connection, across language, across race, religion and history, across age, and gender, and the spectrum of difference.
In etymology and definition, the word audience refers to hearing. So there is a sense in which the very word audience is excluding of deaf spectators. But then, spectator – viewer, watcher – is excluding of blind audiences. What impasses language can lead us into.
Watching, listening to, Summit, I was struck by the ways in which the distinctive grammatical structures of BSL – I am partially making an assumption here, having not great knowledge of the language myself – had inflected the spoken English, shattering its formal rules and disrupting linearity. But this was as nothing to the not-hearing people in the room, for whom the play reinforced the known hierarchy of language. Whatever attempt is being made at collaboration, one of the BSL-speakers reasoned, spoken English is still pre-eminent, still in charge.
Back and forth, back and forth we debated this, until we thought about who was in charge of the spoken English, its representative on stage. A black woman, a dark-skinned black woman at that. For centuries now, black women have been at the bottom of the social pile: disenfranchised, ignored. The language she speaks is the language of colonialism. It is also a language of which she has taken control, and encourages us to take control. The way UKIP and Boris Johnson encouraged voters to “take back control” in the EU referendum? Or the way Jeremy Corbyn reclaimed the words to campaign for the many, not the few?
The wonder of any Theatre Club – in which no one who made the show is in attendance, so it’s up to the audience, or spectators, to discuss their individual interpretations and reflections, based on what they noticed, and felt, and its relationship to their personal experiences elsewhere, the life that brought them into the room – is the variety of analysis it’s possible to encounter. Even people who think they were confused by a show can elucidate something extraordinary simply by asking an acute question or offering a tangential point of connection. The feeling in this Theatre Club was widespread that together, gradually, with attention to each other and patience, we had found a far richer understanding of the work than we might have reached individually. Speaking with deaf spectators gave the hearing audience access to a wholly new perspective, one they might never otherwise have considered.
Imagine a text by Gertrude Stein. Ugh, no, what an elitist thing to say. Here’s some text by Gertrude Stein:
If comparing a piece that is a size that is recognised as not a size but a piece, comparing a piece with what is not recognised but what it used as it is held by holding, comparing these two comes to be repeated. Supposing they are put together, suppose that there is an interruption, supposing that beginning again they are not changed as to position, suppose all this and suppose that any five two of whom are not separating suppose that the five are not consumed. Is there an exchange, is there a resemblance to the sky which is admitted to be there and the stars which can be seen. Is there. That was a question. There was no certainty. Fitting a failing meant that any two were indifferent and yet they were all connecting that, they were all connecting that consideration.
Andy’s writing is nothing like this: the language of it is more plain, for a start, more direct, less abstract. But it shares the percussive musicality of Stein’s writing, its circular movements, its internal righteous logic. What Andy is looking for is exchange: I always feel his writing demands attention, even as it understands that it can and might be ignored. Actually what it asks for is action. It describes a summit, in a room very like the one we’re sitting in, a gathering of people who have come together to make the big gestures, and small gestures, the better ways of working:
We all know that the future is at stake
and we are going to do everything that we can
That was a question. There was no certainty.
As you walk out of the theatre, there is a responsibility: having attended the summit, what could you do next?
* With thanks to Louise Blackwell of Fuel for commissioning this text, with fee and free reign: I might never have gotten round to writing it otherwise.