The term ‘play’ feels almost inappropriate for this exciting new production by Split Britches, and perhaps fails to do justice to the experience of watching it. ‘Event’ might be more accurate. Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw, who perform the piece, impart a powerful sensation of time and place that is both fascinating and disconcerting. Produced collaboratively by Weaver, Shaw, and Hannah Maxwell, this bizarre cross between a genial town hall meeting and a military war-room during imminent nuclear disaster was commissioned by Sky Arts to explore the notion of British identity in the wake of Brexit.
In typical Brechtian style, the fourth wall is broken immediately. Weaver speaks directly to the audience, describing the history of the Barbican Centre, or at least, the land on which it stands, from prehistoric marsh land to the pile of rubble left by World War II. She tells us of the ‘unexploded ordnances’ that remain lodged deep beneath the Pit Theatre where we are gathered, and asks us to consider the subtler, more intimate things that lie within ourselves: forgotten memories, suppressed desires, fears for the future. The play, she tells us, will try to bear out these issues.
Based loosely around Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove, the play is framed by a critical nuclear situation. Shaw plays a military general who oscillates between irrepressible panic and whimsical insincerity, and who reluctantly takes a call about a disaster coming in sixty minutes. After giggling through a song about ‘lasting sixty minutes’, he screams in alarm and sets a clock on the wall to count down the time, and asks the audience to do the same on their mobile phones. The piece ebbs and flows through such moments of urgency and lethargy, exploring the desperation and complacency that characterizes human society and existence.
As an exploration of British identity in the theatre, I am not sure I have witnessed something so incisive and thought-provoking. Weaver gathers a group of ten elderly people on to the stage, asking those born during certain wars of the twentieth century to sit around the circular war-room table. This is dubbed ‘the council of elders’ and the play expands and contracts upon their insights and conversations. Written down, I fear this concept might seem gimmicky and sentimental. It is quite the opposite. Weaver and Shaw engineer an off-balance, fast and slow, comic and sombre environment that draws an impulsive and profoundly honest field of response from those gathered. She asks them for something interesting about themselves and of their fears for the future – which range from incontinence to the murder of Palestinian protestors. In another context, asking elderly people these questions might seem a courtesy, and perhaps the point is to reject that idea. In the theatrical space, their responses are seen for their humour, intelligence, and sorrow.
After sixty minutes our alarms ring out across the auditorium and the promised nuclear climax seems to be deferred. Weaver tells us ‘We have invited you here because we don’t want to be alone with these concerns.’ If this remarkable production tells us anything, it is that despite our many problems we are certainly not alone.