“It took ages, this play.” Sitting at the bar in The Yard theatre in Hackney, as the audience for the evening’s performance trickles through the door and interrupts my sound equipment with their merriment, playwright Rita Kalnejais is absolutely beaming. The response to This Beautiful Future has been glowing. The Stage has called it ‘daringly unconventional’, The Guardian ‘exquisite’. “I like this show,” she tells me brightly. “It was a really hearty room. The creative team are all really good communicators, it’s kind of amazing.”
Having devoured the script moments before Rita’s arrival, my brain was buzzing with its images, caught by its kaleidoscopic vision, arrested by its heart. The heart, it seems, is the key to the whole thing: “I was talking a lot with Jay [Jay Miller, Artistic Director of The Yard and director forThis Beautiful Future] around the time of Brexit, Trump, all of the shit with refugees, everything. Things were just a mess everywhere last year and we wanted to do something that was really gorgeous. To kind of, send a love song to the audience.” At the end of last year, I had always expected a wealth of stories and productions to respond to the political turmoil of 2016. I hadn’t expected that response to come in the form of a play as mercurial as this one.
This Beautiful Future is the story of two teenage lovers in wartorn Europe. Elodie (“She finds the click when you snap a rabbit’s head back rewarding”) and Otto (“He knows how to sit very still”) spend their last night together in the abandoned house of a Jewish family as British troops approach Normandy. Otto is a young soldier mesmerised by Hitler’s vision. Elodie is defiant, listening to banned news stations and laughing in the face of would-be tormentors.
As part of the liberation celebrations in French cities, women accused of ‘collaboration horizontale’ with German soldiers had their heads shaved in public. This imagery became a primary influence for This Beautiful Future: “I saw some footage of girls having their heads shaved and this one particular girl was laughing. She wasn’t buying into the fact that she was meant to feel guilty or that she had done something wrong. And of course, she hadn’t done anything wrong. She had fallen in love and she hadn’t taken the geopolitical landscape into account.” For both Otto and Elodie, This Beautiful Future is a play interested in re-humanising the demonised, in actively refusing to take the geopolitical landscape into account. “I wanted to write a play about this girl and this boy and make it a love story. My focus was very much on them, staying in the room with them on their last night together, and making it as rounded and precise and connected and true as it could be.”
I tell Rita that I’m floored by the play’s humanity. Amidst so much hatred this kind of story feels refreshingly kind. With the seething anger of 2016 so knit into the fabric of the play’s birth, was this part of the impetus to write a love story from the German perspective? “You know, no one really looks back on the Nazis and goes ‘poor things’, but I think if you are in enough need for ideology, as we’re seeing now, then it almost doesn’t matter what the ideology is. If it gives you a sense of ‘you’re okay, you’re safe’, then you’re gonna seize hold of it. And that’s what we see with the boy [Otto].”
This Beautiful Future is Rita’s second production in London, following up from 2015’s First Love is the Revolution at The Soho Theatre. Prior to that, her work was performed across Australia: “It’s a really brilliant culture there. It’s quite experimental. There’s a sort of a wildness and a permission in the Australian theatre scene that I love.”
I ask Rita about the difference between writing for theatre in London and Australia: “When I first came I had real writers block. I felt like I couldn’t speak the language because Australian English is so different from British English. I just couldn’t get my characters to talk in British English (…) which is why my first play here was about a boy and a fox. There were a lot of talking animals and things like that, because I didn’t feel like I could inhabit the language yet.” In This Beautiful Future, language is crucial. Otto and Elodie use words to connect and to deconstruct, as the play moves beyond their last night together and into the violence of D-Day. But when I try to compliment Rita on the lyrical world of the play, she demurs: “It’s pretty specific. I’m specific.”
One of the challenges of the play is to find a language for Otto to communicate his dedication to Hitler, of “choosing a future where everyone’s clean”. It turns out this comes from an unlikely source: “I spoke with fourteen year olds. I spoke with one boy in particular who was just such a beautiful, sensitive guy. And he was talking about Ed Sheeran in this way that had given his life meaning, almost. That gave me a really good language for that kind of dreaming, and the sense that you can be something bigger than what you think your life will be.”
But This Beautiful Future’s ultimate concern is love. Just beyond Otto and Elodie, two older performers, Paul and Alwyne, sing karaoke love songs: Adele, Sammy Fain, Little Mix. Their voices and this doomed love story prove a poignant coupling. Rita credits Jay Miller with the idea: “Our last workshop was two older actors singing karaoke and the younger actors just playing, and it was this really fantastic chaos. I was sort of blown back by the amount of heart in the room.” We admire the beautiful older actress whose face is projected on the wall in anticipation of the play. Something special truly seems to be blossoming within these four walls. “And you have to sing!” Rita urges me conspiratorially just before the doors open. When I ask her when, she tells me I’ll know when the time comes.
This Beautiful Future is on at The Yard until 20th May. Book tickets here.