'Five minutes into the future', Joe Nawaz is impressed by the play's ambition but not its scattergun approach
Citizenship: a curiously bloodless word, given that it reflects such contentious, ill-defined and often bloody-minded concepts.
Replay Productions make a timely and, ever so slightly, political return to the fickle fray of youth theatre with Citizen. Commissioned following last May’s general election, Vincent Higgins has written a piece of theatre purpose-built to take into secondary schools. It is designed to provoke debate in young minds, maybe even to stir some sense of civic responsibility.
Citizen resonates with the last British government’s desperate attempts to embrace a vapid multi-culturalism, while at the same time pandering to the baying tabloid mob. The current ‘Con-Dem’ government further alienate Muslims, migrant workers and asylum seekers of all hues, bolstered, alarmingly, by some laughable notion of an inclusive ‘big society’. Those not doing their duty as citizens are clearly social miscreants, almost certainly poor, young or ‘ethnic’.
This play tackles the big, indigestible ideas about the individual’s right to belong within our society, but not by hurling facts. Instead, it harnesses the humanity behind them.
Citizen grapples with the nebulous concept of what it is to be a citizen of a country using an interwoven series of fractured, contrasting sketches that take us ‘five minutes into the future’. It presents a society which has broken down following the food shortage riots of 2012. The time-frame is unclear: distant enough that today's music have become classics but close enough for an old ‘citizen’ to recall dancing with Hitler as a girl.
Interesting moments throughout the play colour in a little of this fictional future. The all-too-familiar banter of cleaners (futuristic dystopian cleaners to boot) is juxtaposed with the slightly jarring, Orwellian presentation of irony-free public broadcasters. Their filmed profiles are sprawled large and real-time across the backdrop screen as they sit on stage, drily imparting glib facts and unsettling state-sanctioned wisdom on immigration.
Every moment of staged pathos, such as the whimsical testimonies of hopeful prospective citizens, is balanced against one of stark, ironic relief. In a snappy, funny and convincingly smarmy turn from Shaun Blaney, a self-help snake-oil charmer promises, 'If you feel better, you’ll do better'. The idea of futuristic president Bono – hilarious or horrific? – generates laughter, although talk of his financial impropriety draws a sobering parallel with the current batch of elected cowboys. Not to mention Mr ‘Vox’s’ own current dubious tax arrangements.
There’s a level of surreal silliness maintained throughout the performance and Julie Maxwell has honed her physical comedy chops to a fine pointed (slap)stick.
The cynical might suggest it is pointless to try make socio-politics interesting to a generation rendered docile on boil in the bag pop culture and David Cameron sporting Converse trainers. But with angry teenagers taking to the streets to fight education cuts here, and the unfolding foment across the Arab world being propelled in the main by young people, there is a hugely commendable sense of ‘right concept, right time’ about Citizen.
Citizen is also new artistic director Anna Newell’s first work for Replay and she brings light and shade (actual and figurative) to a script calling out for such contrast.
Contemporary inferences filter through the post-apocalyptic ‘junior Children of Men’ style filter, but there seem to be few real insights on offer about the state and its relationship to different kinds of individuals. Perhaps that’s the point though – it is theatre as a catalyst for engagement rather than empowerment.
Citizen might well engage a young audience as entertainment; it has clever, funny and even illuminating moments, but at times it is too ‘busy’ with random ideas to be intellectually cohesive. Some of the sequences are impressive but empty of content. They are like a series of post-modern public information adverts: expertly rendered but what is the message again?
Unfortunately the scenes involving plaintive testimonies from prospective citizens are cloying rather than moving. A golden rule in these situations is, if you’re not sure about doing a foreign accent – don’t. That is a minor gripe, however, with what is otherwise well measured and presented piece of youth theatre with broad educational overtones. Citizen is an interesting melange of images and ideas, tightly and evocatively packaged, but perhaps a bit too scattergun to hit any definitive target.
The war on torpor may be joined on many fronts here, but the battle for hearts and minds may yet need an ancillary outreach programme.