“The living version isn’t trying to convince us of anything, and it can’t exist without us being here,” reads Zainab Hasan. Taking the phrase ‘hot off the press’ literally, the ensemble cast involved in edition one of the Royal Court’s Living Newspaper: A Counter-Narrative perform script-in-hand – the words on the page filed on Tuesday, rehearsed on Wednesday and performed from Thursday. The result is raw, unfiltered and knowingly imperfect metatheatre.
Inspired by The Federal Theatre Project’s ‘Living Newspaper’ of the 1930s (though set in a different kind of mass unemployment) several playwrights pen different sections of the publication – from the front page to the horoscopes. Its framing is apt, as it not only critiques the news of the day, but examines the aims and presentations of narratives in society. As audiences navigate the Royal Court‘s space, the fourth wall is broken. It’s rare and unique for theatre to feel so current in this way – to feel so live.
In such an assortment of stories, it is perhaps somewhat expected for viewers (or ‘readers’) to engage more with different mini-plays within the event. After all, not everyone is interested in the sports page of a standard outlet, or the agony aunt section.
Although it is unfortunate that The Front Page is one of them, with a septet gathered on or around a makeshift stage in the audience of the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs. Melancholic and broody, they sing in a low-toned, guttural manner about being “locked down without a sense of who is wrong and who is right” and “truth decay”, in a way which crumbles itself. While the verses are impactful, the chorus soon becomes repetitive – it has the benefit of being surprisingly catchy, but the disadvantage of becoming tiring. Then again, that feeling isn’t unfamiliar in a time like this – and much like the disconnect explored and created with Who Cuts the Cake? – it may not be unintentional.
If this review reads as indecisive, then that may well be because of Living Newspaper‘s inquisitive and abstract nature. As a lone dancer swings wildly in a nightclub in Subculture Substage, we are expected to find meaning in their exaggerated, drunken movements. It’s not just a case of this live journalism refusing to convince us of a particular view, but it being far more conversational, provocative and proactive than its assertive physical counterpart. In a time where some criticise the media’s adherence to the Reithian principles of inform, educate and entertain, Living Newspaper offers a refreshing and sobering alternative.
It evokes a scepticism within us of the truth metanarrative (as noted on The Front Page), reality and who to believe. The script, held firmly in the hands of the actors, is flipped in more ways than one. One clever example of this is seen in Brown Women Do It Too, in which an anxious Home Secretary only finds comfort in the written words in front of her – soundbites for which she is over-reliant upon. In The Newstand, we see it in Daniel York Loh’s pensive writing on the racism faced by Asians during the pandemic, delicately and endearingly delivered by Camille Mallet de Chauny. The piece itself, titled hungry for a lie, taps into the world of conspiracy and ignorance, the most potent line of the monologue being one in the speaker’s first digression: “I guess our food won’t save us when racist love turns to racist hate.” If ever racism is primarily viewed through the singular lens of the vitriolic kind, then through this binary, York Loh explores others in an erudite and revelatory fashion. In amongst the misinformation, lies a person telling their truth.
The best works are ones which read as educational, lessons learned from its writers during the pandemic, and their refreshed perspective. Chris Thorpe’s Weather Room (performed by Jasmine Lee Jones) appears to invite us to use this time – a time which has seen a large majority of our lives on pause or significantly reduced – to prepare us for the grief of doing something for ‘the last time’ in the future, as a rehearsal for grief, almost. “Maybe the best way we’ve got to prepare for all this going, is to act like it’s already gone,” the piece concludes.
Living Newspaper‘s intrigue and talent lies in realisation – both from transforming scripted ideas into impressive sets (done by six person-strong design collective) and from an audience perspective. In the revamped Royal Court cloakroom, behind a perspex screen, sits Auntie Richard, available to answer a concern selected by the individual. For those watching online, this was predetermined, and concerns the recent debate around whether a scotch egg counts as a substantial meal. What follows is a test which exposes the world of distraction politics, and its risks.
It can be said, therefore, that Living Newspaper – so intelligently self-aware – truly deconstructs our current narratives around truth and (mis)information. It presents its version of events in a format which encourages participation, engagement, analysis and critical thinking – like great theatre should.
Living Newspaper: Edition One is available to watch online, on-demand until 20 December at 4pm (GMT).
Production Images: Isha Shah.
Disclaimer: I saw Living Newspaper: Edition One for free in exchange for a review of the production. I did not receive any payment for this review, and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.