For sheer innovation, one of the most enjoyable online productions during last year was Complicité’s piece The Encounter which I named as one of my 20 for 2020. So it was with great anticipation that I headed towards their new online piece Can I Live?
Complicité is taking this on an online tour which means that the various venues where the production would normally have appeared live are acting as hosts instead. The audience can actually watch at any time and indeed be anywhere. It is being timed so that the run finishes to coincide with Glasgow’s COP26 international conference on our climate.
For this is a piece about that very topic, written and performed by Fehinti Balogun although its also about social justice or rather the lack of it in many cases. Without wishing to oversimplify his arguments the join between the two strands looks something like this.
Those on lower incomes and particularly the Black community, are too busy battling with economic realities, including poverty, to get involved in climate activism. Buying more expensive eco-friendly products is not on their radar because the cost is prohibitive. And to cap it all a Black person involved in climate protest is far more likely to be arrested causing probable further economic distress; thus, inertia pertains.
Balogun provides plenty of statistical evidence to back these claims which are set alongside some of the more familiar facts and figures about global warning and impending ecological disaster. Balogun is of Nigerian heritage and the African continent becomes a particular focus – only a relatively minor shift of temperature could result in three year continuous droughts in the west and in the north the same could occur for five years at a stretch – sobering is an understatement.
It’s a set of hard hitting messages but mostly played in a positive upbeat style which engages and enthuses though it is not difficult to see (and understand) Balogun’s underlying anger. The piece, well directed by Daniel Bailey has been filmed onstage at the Barbican although it appears to start in the family home before opening out. The deceptively simple beginning is an anecdote about shopping and plastic carrier bags.
Balogun narrates the story in a personal and personable manner as though he is talking to a friend. Only gradually did I become aware that his speech had shifted into a rap with its patterns of repetition and rhythmic undertow, a neat trick he pulls off several times over the course of the next hour. There are also full blown musical numbers which break up what might otherwise be a dry lecture on difficult subject matter with too many stats. In some delightful comedy moments Balogun’s “mum” keeps interrupting the flow with phone calls about how he needs to tidy up after himself. Visually too there are some gorgeously realised graphics and filmed inserts. Complicité’s vision of using a “distinctive, visually rich stage language, which layers physically beautiful performances and tightly choreographed ensemble work with innovative lighting, sound and video design” is well in evidence here, no doubt enhanced by the presence of AD Simon McBurney as co-director.
It didn’t blow me away like The Encounter , but it is still an innovative and intriguing piece of theatre making which has a clear agenda and from which I learned quite a bit. There’s always a danger with this sort of theatre that it can all become too preachy but there is enough variety in the construction to keep an audience entertained even as they learn more about a scenario where we are repeatedly told that time has/will run out. For those intrigued to follow up further and who want to take positive action, Complicité are hosting a weekly series of workshops/discussions during the duration of the virtual tour – details are on their website here.