Beats has much in common with Kieran Hurley’s earlier piece Hitch in its concern and the simplicity of its aesthetics. Both are performed by Hurley who begins by saying hello to the audience. Accompanied by music and video projections, he then proceeds to tell a coming-of-age story. It’s not emotional education that his protagonists go through, however, not a first broken heart but the emergence of political consciousness.
Hitch was a theatrical travelogue: an account of Hurley’s own journey to protest against the G8 summit in Italy in 2008, with an openness, clarity and honesty that resonated well beyond the confines of what actually happened within the narrative. Beats moves beyond autobiographical material to tell the story of 15 year old Johnno McCreedie living with his mum Alison in Livingston in the mid 1990s. Johnno’s journey is over one night and it’s to a rave somewhere outside town: a gathering that has just been made illegal according to a section of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act.
We meet Johnno in his room playing Zelda on the SNES but we also hear from Alison and from Robert the policeman who will be sent in full riot gear to break up the rave, as well as Johnno’s companions Spanner and D-Boz (or some variation thereof).
Both are personal journeys: the kinds of nights or weeks that you have when you feel you’ll never be the same person again; but they are journeys towards something communal. We first see Johnno playing SNES alone in his room, hoodie pulled over his head, door locked, shutting out the world. At the rave, he feels a connection with hundreds of people. “You’re for me and I’m for you”.
Of course, it’s just at this moment when the rave is dispersed violently by a system that specifically targets a particular subculture. Hurley never demonises his characters. Robert may be weak, tortured and complicit in an unjust system but he is fundamentally a good, well-intentioned person who went into the police-force for those reasons. His position becomes entrenched because of self-justification. Years later, he looks back on Johnno and remembers him as a kind of monster.
Out of the fog of crushing defeat though emerges the memory of that togetherness, that euphoria. It may be easy to dismiss the free-party movement as a bunch of kids pilling their tits off in a field but they were grass-roots events that were criminalised out of a political knee-jerk reaction from John Major’s government. That legislation had ripple effects across Europe in eroding the possibilities of alternative communities and is inextricably connected with the laws against squatting and traveller communities, with our attitude to strikes, to peaceful protest, to our existence as citizens. Johnno doesn’t know any of this, of course. He just knows that it can’t just be drugs, like Spanner says. He felt something and it was real. It has to mean something or, as he puts it, “it doesn’t mean nothing.”
Read Catherine Love’s interview with Kieran Hurley.