I’m working in Southend at the moment on a project called The Real Britain. It’s a launch for East 15‘s new Clifftown Studios there — a site-specific theatre and performance series on the history of the UK. The driving idea is that the UK is and always had been an immigrant culture, and so our audiences, as they walk through the different rooms of the building, will go on a journey through the experiences of different immigrants in different times, from the Romans to the Poles.
Now that’s a UK I can believe in. Problematic, motley, isolated and creative. That’s long been the vision of the UK I’ve had — a wild combination of different peoples, settlers and invaders, colonised and colonising. The BNP’s farcical “indigenous” being a vague sort of synonym for “looks sort of white”. Go back far enough in any British family’s history and you’ll find it’s an immigranmt family; it only takes five generations, or 150 years, to find that in my family, and we would appear as British as they come. So I’m finding it a really worthwhile project to be working on.
I’m assistant directing on a segment set in a 1970s Green Street back alley between a Chinese and a Pakistani restaurant; it’s exploring those two key immigrant experiences, and also the rising culture clash as a result of the large-scale immigration of the 40s and 50s. We’re also looking at refugees and asylum, something I’m really passionate about, so we’re managing to work some of that in as well.
There’s a real race issue. The class group is mainly white, with a few internationals. So how to portray Pakistanis and Chinese? We’ve taken the decision to just run with it, and as we have to cast across race, to do it fully and make a point of it. So our gang of white racists include a Burmese, a Nigerian and a Greek, while our Chinese family are all white. We’re having some fun play with language as well, looking at racial stereotyping and performace — the waitresses all speak broken Engrish when customers are around, but talk totally ordinarily amongst themselves. It’s good for a laugh, it solves an issue, and it makes a point.
The structure of the theatre project is also something I really believe in: collaboration across groups and institutions, theatre that breaks the confines of the simple stage-play, that immerses audiences in experiences, that discusses important issue in an entertaining way, and which is being combined with workshops and panel discussions to create what should be an empowering weekend. We hope! Of course, all of that brings organisational difficulties, confusions, rushed rehearsals, stress and so forth — but I’m optimistic. Come and see it if you’re around.