What might a perfect world look like? A new and unlikely project conceived through a collaboration between the Soho Theatre and Newcastle’s Live Theatre sets out to ask just this. Utopia is a reaction against the current overwhelming mood of pessimism, both in the world in general and in theatre in particular, charging its team of writers – including Simon Stephens, Janice Okoh and Dylan Moran – with dreaming up a vision of a flawless society.
As contributor Thomas Eccleshare tells me, the Soho Theatre’s artistic director Steve Marmion, who helmed the show together with Live Theatre’s Max Roberts, “wanted to create a piece of political theatre that wasn’t cynical or pessimistic”. Their aim instead was “to challenge people to write a view of the world in a completely optimistic light and to think ‘what would perfection look like?’”
I suggest that it seems a slightly incongruous time to be thinking about perfection, in light of a strikingly imperfect world, but Eccleshare disagrees. His research has revealed that “utopias have often come out of pretty dark places”; it would seem to be human nature that when the gloom is at its thickest we are most intent on glimpsing that faint glimmer of hope for a better future. Eccleshare echoes this: “I don’t think it’s impossible to view the light at the end of the tunnel just because we’re in such a dark place”.
Marmion and Roberts both agree that the timing is important, precisely because of the prevailing atmosphere of doom and gloom. As they see it, people have forgotten political optimism and seem content to accept imperfection. Offering the example of socialism, they contest that a few years ago this concept “wasn’t seen as fantastic but simply as the other option, to be followed and tested and explored. We seem to have lost some of that urge for solving our problems rather than just enduring them.” The directors go on to explain that the project also sets out to differentiate itself from the similarly abundant pessimism in much of today’s theatre. “So much of the theatre that we see nowadays is essentially dystopian with a small chink of hope offered at the very end; Utopia is something very different”.
Unlike Thomas More and other authors of early utopias, however, the writers involved in this project have had to grapple with a pervading atmosphere of cynicism and a generally accepted recognition that there is no one utopia that can satisfy everyone. Conceding this, the directors tell me that “the only option for us as we created this show was to present each writer’s vision truthfully and then celebrate the moments of humanity that shone out in each”. As a result, this is necessarily and perhaps wisely a patchwork of several different, personal utopias rather than one grand, unified vision of a perfect world.
Eccleshare admits that he struggled somewhat with the inherent subjectivity of the idea at this show’s centre. “There’s an awareness of how many people there are in the world and an acceptance, at least in the liberal leaning Western world, that there isn’t one right way of doing it,” he says. “If you’re looking to write about perfection, you inevitably come up against the problem that one person’s perfection is someone else’s imperfection.” As a result, it is a struggle to approach the concept of utopia without a healthy dose of irony, and Eccleshare tells me that, even with the directors’ brief, a lot of the pieces have “a sting in the tail”.
This evening of theatre is also more political than it might appear at first glance. “I think there’s something quite political about the idea in itself,” Eccleshare suggests, going on to ask, “who is imposing this utopia?” His words point to the inherently complex nature of what this project is attempting to do; if one individual’s paradise can be another’s idea of hell, how is it possible to even begin to approach the idea of an overarching utopian ideal without imposing this? The problematic nature of the endeavour has been confronted head on by Marmion, who has inserted a political speech by Hitler as a counterpoint to the plays being presented and, as Eccleshare puts it, as “a reminder of how dangerous utopian visions can be”.