I went down to Zoo 142 in the drizzle to watch a devised play by the Nottingham New Theatre; OPEN. A fair congregation was standing outside when I arrived; punters of all ages and demogpraphs. This play has an interesting pull and presents a subject we are all eager to engage with.
OPEN is a sourced play, constructed from a series of collected stories from the general public across Britain. This play has a political backbone, one that is relevant and timely, and the play is both jovial and informative.
OPEN is about the great diversity of political opinion in Britain; a subject that has a real sting to it in light of the confusion and dissatisfaction felt by many after the general election; an election that left the majority misrepresented. This play makes a courageous stab at addressing this. I think this is an extremely interesting and intelligent concept, and one I enjoyed watching.
Before writing about this particular play, I felt I needed to know a little more about how it was conceived. So, I asked Lydia Smith (Publicity Manager) and Jack Revell (Director) to come back to me with a little about what motivated them to create OPEN and how they went about collecting material.
In terms of this being political theatre, OPEN is unlike much of what is out there; this play has no overt agenda of its own. The company set out to collect political opinions, any the public were willing to give, and present them onstage. The company members are invisible; they are a mouthpiece for those who have opened up to them.
According to the company, the play is roughly 90% verbatim, however:
A lot of people drop pretty deep and disturbing ideas as though they were the most casual thing in the world, which sometimes works but doesn’t always make great theatre. Though we retain the original for most of the play, we also like to bend the delivery to maximise its effect and get people noticing the extreme breadth of opinion in our society.
This layer of pretence is well-balanced; there were no glaring or extravagant characters that juxtaposed the company’s intentions. What we have is a more engaging piece of theatre with characters that hold our attention and reach out to us. After all, theatre – even verbatim – has the leeway to go beyond our normal behaviours and present something larger than ourselves.
The voices we are given are, on the most part, well chosen. They all lend themselves nicely to being dramatised and much of what they say resonates well. Some are touching, other comical, some misinformed and others enlightening. Together, they represent a decent cross-section of the public. This is an endearing show, it doesn’t shy away from the struggles people face and lays bare the fears people have for themselves, their families and their country. However, and it might be consistent with the responses they collected, OPEN does seem to present British people as slightly ignorant. In hindsight, as much as this upsets me, it’s hard to argue the contrary. As a result, the play toes that line between being stirring and being disheartening; the reception of which is ultimately subjective.
OPEN is a non-narrative play, which might jar with some. I wonder why this is the case. My feeling is that, had the company compounded everything they’ve gathered into a linear story, the play might’ve felt looser and more contrived. The people represented in OPEN were not asked uniform questions and were instead given the freedom to comment on what matters most to them; trying to weave that together might have proven disastrous. Certainly, some of the play’s integrity could’ve been lost. On the other hand, if the company had found a means to do this, the play would be more accessible. A difficult dilemma. As it is, the play is at it’s most simple but is still effective. I would’ve liked to see a more inventive means of transitioning between voices, or perhaps a chorus of voices from time to time, to liven up the senses a little; this play asks a lot of it’s audience to remain committed. I didn’t find this too much to ask, but some of the audience might have.
The company have made an effort to create a common locality for their subjects; setting the play in a chip shop on election night. This was a nice touch, allowing for connections to be made between characters. while they all wait for their dinners, the characters take to the soapbox and share something personal with us. They debate amongst themselves and jostle for the limelight. Stories become currency; a large cod and chips in exchange for their views.
The actors did a great job. As you can imagine, they all multi-roled extensively and each character was aptly formed. It is a difficult skill to keep an audience attentive in a play such as this, but this cast make easy work of it. It is a pleasure to watch these performers and their commitment and respect for those they’ve interviewed is evident.
I think this play has some room to grow. However, OPEN is important, intelligent and responsive. What this company has set out to do is active and engaging, demonstrating that theatre is an important cog in the political machine and a vessel for the voiceless.
I hope this show continues to develop beyond The Fringe. I think work needs to be done to make this show more captivating, but I would still recommend you see it. I think work such as this deserve our support. There aren’t many theatre-makers who are interested in representing the spectrum of opinions out there; many like to dissect and scrutinise – this play passes no judgements, it opens up to all.
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