Last weekend the Young Vic Theatre briefly reopened its doors in celebration of 50 years since the first time it did so back in 1970. A much bigger birthday party had been planned but in the current circumstances what can you do? Instead a limited audience, selected by ballot, attended a presentation of short monologues and songs focusing on where we are now and speculating on what comes next. The event, called The New Tomorrow… was live streamed on Facebook; it is now available for a very limited period so the rest of us can catch up.
The show is hosted by the Young Vic’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah: “We reached out to nine artists, academics, thinkers and we said: ‘Tell us what your New Tomorrow looks like and we’ll put it up’. We just wanted it to pop up and fill the space.”
While “filling the space” may not be achieved physically – the pieces are all for solo performers and the audience is socially distanced – it is certainly the case emotionally and spiritually as piece after piece hits hard and remains with you after the performance is over. Early on there is what amounts to a key note speech from academic Shahida Bari entitled Cities Of Forgetfulness, which is reflective but underpinned with an anger that becomes a manifesto for the rest of the performance.
There is a stand out piece of satire from Steve Waters entitled Yesterday’s Gone – yes, the Fleetwood Mac song is heavily referenced. In this Matthew Dunster’s civil servant quits his job and delivers a blistering attack to his lords and masters about just what needs to be done to turn the country round. Ruth Madeley and Jack Thorne’s humour is less barbed but none the less effective in their piece Emoji Tennis where Sophie Stone tries to connect via online chat and gets into difficulties with overt and covert meanings.
The longest piece, Black Pain Redux, features Paapa Essiedu channelling his friend Jasmine Lee Jones’ feelings about George Floyd, sexual abuse and a suicide attempt. It is an interesting device to hear such a raw confessional at one stage removed but Essiedu delivers it without histrionics which makes it all the more affecting. Much shorter but also highly effective is the poem written and delivered by Tom Gill in which he takes the alt-right to task in “Wear A Bloody Mask” – let’s hope Mr Trump tuned in. There are a couple of beautifully delivered songs from Anoushka Lucas with Ronkẹ Adékọluẹ́jọ́ and Martina Laird completing the roster of performers in other contributions.
Billed as a “scratch” performance, some of the performers carry their words with them and some do not and the whole is played out on a simple bare stage with a backdrop of the art installation which currently adorns the outside of the theatre, The Unforgotten which features Mary Seacole, Marsha P. Johnson and Ulric Cross. In a nice family touch Kwame ‘KZ’ Kwei-Armah Junior is the DJ between acts. If Kwei-Armah senior was looking for an effective and powerful piece of pop up theatre then he has certainly found one. The key word which kept resurfacing throughout the performance was “hope” and the idea to look forwards rather than the temptation to simply reminisce is both inspirational and aspirational.
Although a rather more muted celebration than originally planned, this show is a powerful acknowledgment of the theatre’s ongoing mission to be a real centre for the community. Starting off as an offshoot of its big sister up the road, the Young Vic is now celebrated in its own right for its powerful programming, its ability to attract big names as performers, writers and directors and this show reminded me of the times I have been there and enjoyed its output. Trawling through my personal archives I found my first visit there was in 1975 to see an entertainment called All Walks Of Leg which was based on the writings of John Lennon (how appropriate since his memory is being honoured with 80th birthday celebrations too). Anyway, from me it will have to be happy 45th; hopefully, in another five years things will be back to “normal” and I can say happy 50th in the actual auditorium.