It begins with a woman hauled up from the deep, scales tattooed along her legs, fish etched across her torso, and roughly carved into the knuckles of each hand, where a hard man might have the words love and hate, the letters of the name Gloriana. She has no memory of origin and little inkling of her power, except that odd things seem to happen when she raises her hands to cover her face or stretch them out at her sides. The barred door of a detention centre blows open, allowing her and several other refugees to escape. Hidden actions become visible – complicity in people trafficking, or in softening the borders of The City by the Sea. And rain, rain, rain begins to fall, rain that never seems to end.
What an anomalous thing Slung Low’s Flood is: a biblical epic, a TV serial, an action movie, most of which is staged on the waters of a disused dock encased by a middle-class housing estate in Hull. For the first 30 minutes or more of Part 2, cold seeping through my skin despite two pairs of tights, five layers of wool, coat and legwarmers and boots, I thought I might not enjoy it much but would see it through out of loving respect for Alan Lane, Slung Low’s recalcitrant director. And I don’t know what the turning point was – the moment when Gloriana and the daughter of a disgraced politician became lovers? When the officer guarding the detention centre stood before the audience and justfied the distance between “us” and “them” in a way that made questionable the entire concept of justice? When fire shot across half the set, gold above the water’s black black oil? – but with that turning I realised I was hooked, caught and gripped by the events unfolding.
Written by James Phillips in a language sometimes ponderous and faintly archaic, Flood is a modern-day parable of Old Testament proportions: only this time there’s no benign patriarch building an ark for the saving. The City by the Sea is deluged much the way New Orleans was deluged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and if disaster brings out the best in some people, as recounted by Rebecca Solnit in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, it also gives license to selfishness, a survival instinct that refuses to save or protect but instead insists, over and over, my life matters the most. In the ratcheting atmosphere of chaos and fear, Gloriana occupies the space traditionally given to an action hero, and is idolised as such; she might resist worship in word, but in deed she has a habit of holding her arms as though crucified, a walking resurrection of a saviour preaching kindness but not averse to the use of righteous force, whose very presence disrupts the status quo with its promise of other ways to live.
Flood begins with her miraculous resurrection, told in a short online film; Part 2 moves to the water, where a complex of floating docks tightly bound form The City by the Sea, a place of ordinary corruptions, suspicious of strangers, but still ready to question the dubious morals of warmongering politicians. When the flood comes those docks disperse; for Part 3 the story moves to the screen again, where time itself becomes fluid, with three young women in the post-flood world watching mobile phone footage of Gloriana and other survivors struggling to find land. And Part 4 returns to the water, where the city is now an archipelago, each small island distinct in its politics and practice of leadership: one lives by a cult of Gloriana worship, feminine in its aspect; one is a harshly dictatorial, intolerant and repressive, masculine in its aggression; the third democratic, but not so much as we know it, more communal and cognisant of non-hierarchical approaches to building the future.
There’s a lot to take in here and everything is huge, from the spectacular effects to the broad (albeit complex) characterisation to the political debate. Flood is big because Lane has a military father and a child’s heart, and gets an evident thrill from personally marshalling large casts wielding smoke grenades, a batallion of speedboats, and a model helicopter whirling laser lights across the sky – so much of a thrill that he directs each show, night after night, through a headset. But Flood is also big because it needs to hold the attention: yes because it’s outdoors, and yes because it wants to attract people who don’t usually go to the theatre, but above all because it’s here for a political conversation, goddamn it, and even in these health-and-safety-gone-mad days, blasting pyrotechnics straight out of a calor gas canister stops Slung Low putting themselves at risk of arrest. Flood is acting restrained by asking its audience to wear headphones and keep them on throughout, because how it really wants to communicate is by grabbing each audience member individually by the collar and howling at them: “but are the systems that you’re living in really what you want? Do you really want a prime minister without a mandate making decisions for the country behind closed doors with a bunch of private-school twonks? Do you really want fascist ideology where there ought to be press accountability? Do you really want the inequality that capitalism fosters and neoliberalism enforces? Do you really want people to drown rather than share what you have? Do you really want to sleepwalk your way through the destruction of all that is best in the human social fabric? Or do you want to join us in building up, or fighting for, something better?”
These questions become more insistent and impassioned as Flood progresses. From the moment Gloriana is fished out of the water, she is a figurehead for the refugee crisis. True to its title, Abundance, Part 2 moves at speed across a society that doesn’t know how good it’s got things, attempting to shore itself up against the outside world, while not caring for the consequences of its actions upon others. Sound familiar? In Part 3, Phillips makes his social points stark: the man who refuses to save others becomes the man who himself isn’t saved. And in Part 4, New World, Phillips’ allegorical setting assumes the direct simplicity of fairy-tale. The three island societies that have arisen post-flood are named demonstratively, as Holy, Renaissance, and Albion – the last is the violent dictatorship, natch. Do any of them represent uncomplicatedly the notion of “something better”? Not really – there’s a reason none of them is called Utopia.
Katharine Williams’ lighting design here does a lot to complicate the picture: Holy Island is a garden of poster-paint colours, child-like blobs of red, green and blue; Albion stark, metallic and cold. Rennaissance Island is almost characterless, a flat wash of magnolia cream – but the toned-down background makes it feel more spacious, less oppressive. This is a place where people try to get back to how they were before – but also a place where they’re asked to listen better, think harder, and put their armour down. It’s a place in which everyone contributes – is invited to contribute – not just with a tick in a box but in discussion. Progress is slower, says one inhabitant of Rennaissance Island, but it’s also much more secure.
That inhabitant is part of the chorus of Hull locals who perform in the play, their faces projected magically onto a fine mist of water. There’s a literal chorus too, a choir, whose voices shimmer through Heather Fenoughty’s score, rising always to a note of hope. So many of the Slung Low team have worked together before, on other shows across Yorkshire – the one based on Moby Dick in Leeds, the one based on Camelot in Sheffield – and if I’d seen more of them I might have a stronger sense of how they’re marching repeatedly across the same metaphorical territory, an impression that emerges from reading reviews (and in the interests of disclosure – although these days what difference does it make? – I wouldn’t have seen this one except Slung Low kindly paid for the trip. They didn’t ask for or expect this review: it’s just something I felt moved to do).
Does repetition matter? Don’t be ridiculous. Lane, Phillips, everyone who devotes themselves to this Slung Low endeavour, have absorbed and practice daily the central tenet of another Rebecca Solnit book, Hope in the Dark: social change comes often through a concatenation of small actions, a devoted practice of living differently and encouraging others to live like that too. Even if the shows Slung Low make are all, somewhat, the same, they are also the result of a dedication to difference, to paying attention to fairness, inclusion, community, and the fun to be had in torching the joint. You feel it, you feel it watching the work, in its earnestness and its childishness, its intimacy – because despite the distance at which the audience are placed, Flood does achieve intimacy – and its expansiveness. This is work that wants to change people, and if not change them then at least involve them in a conversation about change. It’s work that wants to get people ready for that “every now and then” that Solnit describes, in which “the possibilities explode. In these moments of rupture, people find themselves members of a ‘we’ that did not until then exist, at least not as an entity with agency and identity and potency; new possibilities suddenly emerge, or that old dream of a just society reemerges and – at least for a little while – shines.” Flood gets people ready for that moment by being that moment: the members of the local community absorbed into the work are the site of agency, identity, potency, and everyone watching is encouraged to connect with that. Lane and Phillips know it’s an old dream they’re presenting, but they do so with such profound commitment that by the end I wasn’t just gripped, or absorbed, but humbled.
Flood is performed as part of Hull City of Culture 2017. Click here for more details.