Anoesis, the title of youth theatre company Junction 25’s latest show, refers to the reception of impressions without intellectual understanding. It’s an apt term to apply to the education system, which has a habit of drilling its pupils to perform in exams without making any real impact on their deeper understanding of the world around them. This pressurised but superficial fixation on success makes particularly timely subject matter, as Michael Gove continues to shake up the secondary school curriculum and the arts and humanities are increasingly endangered. It’s time we asked what we value from education and what we really want to learn.
Junction 25’s lightly immersive exploration of examination culture insists on bringing these questions to the surface, touching variously on ideas of pressure, discipline, achievement, individuality (or lack of) and success. Dropping its audience back in the exam hall, the company organises us down two long tables, complete with name badges, exam papers and register. We’re asked to answer questions under time limits, recreating the situation that the company are attempting to critique, but for the most part the pressure of success-driven schooling is evoked through other, more inventive means.
Exchanges with audience members expose the definitions of success that we are taught to measure ourselves by from a young age, while a series of brief monologues incisively imitate the blandly critical language of school reports – all talk of “potential” and the dreaded “must try harder”. The most striking sequences, however, are those with no words at all. An increasingly competitive race between the two ends of the hall, with students repeatedly falling to the floor in the rush to keep up, is a simple but startling visual metaphor for the contest that today’s students face in holding their own among their peers. This is contrasted with the delicate pause of a lull in which the performers can simply play, an element of growing up that is increasingly marginalised in favour of getting ahead.
There’s no doubting the urgency behind these ideas or the terrifying talent of the youngsters bringing them to the stage. The interactive element of the piece, however, still feels a little under-considered. The involvement does add a level of engagement, but its rules – unlike those of the schoolroom – are not entirely clear. For the immersion to be justified, the audience needs to genuinely feel the pressure that students are placed under, which never quite happens. Instead our role shifts throughout the piece, at some times required to actively interact and at others left in the position of observers.
Despite the grim diagnosis of the education system offered by Junction 25, there remains some hope for how we might take our learning into our own hands. As each of the young performers shares their own strengths, passions and preferred ways of working, the balance is redressed a little, recognising the importance of valuing the knowledge that we each choose to pursue.