He’s still playing on my mind: Bowie. The one, perhaps only, time an artist can guarantee unanimous adoration is after their death. This is especially true for an artist as seminal as the Thin White Duke, or Ziggy Stardust, or Aladdin Sane; choose to remember him as you like. Perhaps Bowie’s greatest gift to us, his audience, was an identity that was as polymorphous as his oeuvre.
Death acts as an invitation to re-visit those works that have enriched our lives through their exquisite expression. Whether they be songs, films, books, paintings, or theatre pieces (all forms of which Bowie worked in, albeit with various degrees of success) they act as illuminating eyes onto the everyday.
Since he passed many critics have cited Heroes as Bowie’s magnum opus. It has always struck me as an intensely romantic piece, a yearning for a relationship to temporarily triumph over “them”, “just for one day”. Bowie’s words continue to resonate because they act as a beseechment to resist defeat by embracing the moment, especially when the battle seems lost. A romantic notion to be sure but one that is no less vital for it.
These days heroism is a quality most often associated with soldiers and homeowners, not idealistic young things. This might not be an accident: At a time when home ownership is becoming an almost unobtainable aspiration for many young people one would be forgiven for thinking they might have to make hitherto unthinkable sacrifices to join the property owning democracy. To opt out of the struggle to join is not an option unless one wishes to admit they will never become one of Bowie’s ominous mass and thus be cast as a failure, or worse, as a coward.
Several theatre pieces over the past year have asked audiences how one might succeed in gaining membership to this elusive club. A strategy present in all of the works is character adjustment, for good and for ill.
He’ll build a glass asylum
With just a hint of mayhem
We’ll be living from sin
Then we can really begin
(David Bowie, Big Brother)
In his 2015 play Game Mike Bartlett offered a dark yet disconcertedly plausible panacea to the UK’s housing malady. Carly and Ashley are offered a home to live in, free of charge, by an unnamed company. The contract they are offered at the opening of the play stipulates they will be allowed to live there for life with one condition: At any time, day or night, they can and will be shot with a tranquiliser gun by unseen voyeurs. All of the in house action took place behind one-way mirrors, enabling the audience to play the role of passive bystanders whilst the family horror show played out. Behind us a carousel of bickering couples, drunk hen parties and bored thrill seekers took part in the game whilst being supervised by a former soldier.
During its run at the Almeida the auditorium was re-configured to show us three distinct perspectives of the home. Two television monitors were mounted above the seating area displaying streamed footage of those areas we could not see live, creating an effective mood of perpetual surveillance. The fact that we were told Carly and Ashley volunteered to act out their lives for our fickle amusement added to the play’s dystopic atmosphere, yet was simultaneously all the more realistic for it.
The show home effect created by Miriam Buether’s set design perfectly embodied the multiple levels of reality the play operates in. With reality television now surely, hopefully, reaching a saturation point, we are well accustomed to the blurring of different reals in mainstream entertainment. Likewise, the real of the everyday can often resemble the aesthetic of reality television. Big Brother has ceased being a warning to the future by becoming a construct we contribute to daily. The compulsion to record and share our offline lives in the digital realm intensifies our need to widen the web we spin every day by willingly monitoring our thoughts and actions to optimise our connexity.
As a game show Big Brother inconceivably continues to succeed at titillating an audience who have become addicted to televised cruelty. When the show launched on Channel Four in 2000 the surveillance state was still, just, a reality that had more in common with dystopian fiction and Cold War nostalgia than everyday life for British audiences. No longer. Game’s dramaturgy brilliantly demonstrated the porosity that now exists between nightmare and ideal in the public imagination.
It was torturous to watch the characters silently pleading with each other to bury each other’s doubts by listing the advantages of setting up a house, the most effective being the opportunity to bestow a house onto their yet to be conceived children. Bartlett’s inclusion of the son later in the play cast the decisions of Carly and Ashley into a more sympathetic light. Gradually, the fear of sudden and disorientating incapacitation attained an equal weight to the loss of meaning in the sacrifice the couple had made. As the play progressed we came to understand the wider world outside the living room– present only as hinted utterances – was disintegrating. Dystopian realities have become such a staple in our post 9/11, post economic crash world that the specifics did not need to be dramatized beyond the micro-world of the house – our imaginations rose to the challenge with depressing ease. Carly and Ashley were clearly aware of the potential for societal descent from the beginning: for what other reason might one relinquish the agency of their body than to provide for their children, whether they have been born or not? Had their son inherited the house then perhaps a lifetime of mod con torture would have been worthwhile. At the end of the play the family are forced to leave their home into a far more dangerous environment – the outside world, where people will not see reality-actors but potential targets. This is appropriate given that targets are precisely what the characters are from Game’s opening moments – both as human game and as victims of aggressive marketing and a failing economy. Who could ever be a hero in circumstances when the choice is between the hells of home or homelessness?
Babies are the enemies of the human race
(Isaac Asimov, The Future of Humanity)
A much less sympathetic though far more amusing couple told their story of home in Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin. Gemma Whelan and Sean Michael Verey played Ollie and Jill with infectiously playful relish at the Soho Theatre in April 2015. The actors vividly created the sketch show world of Radiant Vermin by performing on a bare stage save for a white backdrop. Ollie and Jill are told by a government official, Miss Dee, that they meet the criteria to be given a house – homely, hardworking, and desiring of a better life for their coming child. The aim of the scheme is to regenerate dilapidated areas by creating middle class communities and so create economically functioning polities. What Miss Dee spots and we the audience gradually came to realise is how flexible Ollie and Jill’s ethics were when offered a chance to climb the steep social ladder.
The house is a fixer upper (shell) situated in an up-and-coming (poor) area of town but has “potential”. Ollie and Jill move in, deciding the house offers the perfect chance to start a family. But on their first night in their new home Ollie kills an intruder, a local vagrant. Magically part of the house is then transformed. Realising the potential to improve their living conditions free of charge the couple embark on a murder spree.
The cartoonish aspect of the storytelling juxtaposed with the characters’ amorality. Addressing the audience directly in the manner of children’s television presenters, Whelan and Verey gained our sympathy by packaging their actions into a relatable form, never allowing us to forget that each murder is committed to give their child the best possible chance in life. Any true moral centre is absent– material gain reigns supreme.
Radiant Vermin explicitly challenged the moral equivalence in current political discourse between the welfare of children and the impoverished. Ridley intelligently denounces the argument that a parent’s devotion to their child is an excuse for being indifferent to the suffering of others. The notion that one’s first duty to their family demonstrably has damaging consequences for our ability to empathise with those who are not part of that club. Radiant Vermin provided a superb dramatic riposte to the humiliating and dangerous scramble for housing young people are being forced to undergo in the current political climate.
The ethics of consumerism punctuate the debates about the current housing crisis yet are so rarely given serious consideration in public discourse. Bartlett’s and Ridley’s protagonists fulfil the shallow criteria the political and media classes incessantly argue are deserving of decent housing: in a relationship, employed, and capable of child bearing. FYSA Theatre’s E15 used testimonials to produce a powerful agitprop performance at the Camden People’s Theatre in January 2016 as part of the Whose London is it Anyway? season to express the injustices of this criteria.
The Focus E15 campaign group was founded in 2013 by a group of young mothers who were facing eviction from the Focus E15 hostel. Told that funds were no longer available to help the homeless, Newham Council advised them that they would have to find alternative accommodation in the private sector outside of London.
Over the course of just one hour the five young actors – five female and one male – accomplished the complex feat of marrying the macro-political with the micro-personal by foregrounding the experiences of these exceptionally brave and courageous women. The small black box theatre was adorned with banners and posters with legends demanding social and affordable housing. As we entered the auditorium we were handed leaflets asking us to join the Focus E15 campaign, whilst two performers hollered into a microphone: “Whose streets? Our Streets!”
We instantly lacked the anonymity traditionally afforded to theatre audiences by being potentially culpable: Do we care poor single mothers can be robbed of a home at the bequest of a council official? Do we recognise the significance of the Focus E15 group originating in Newham, the host borough of the 2012 Olympics? Why are these women considered to have fewer rights to choose where they live than those with greater wealth? E15 brilliantly eviscerated the narrative of strivers versus skivers by giving a platform to those who fall foul of a housing policy targeted at those who are deemed winners in the eyes of the government. I have never been audience to a piece of theatre that addresses the contemporary moment with such verve and immediacy.
The absolute necessity to speak out against injustice is E15’s primary motor. Despite the despair being described onstage it was not a mournful piece but a direct call for action. E15 shows an instance of an ongoing housing crisis and instructs us in some detail about how the public can organise and protest against it.
That’s what I call true heroism.