How possible is it to address the political via the personal? This is the question sitting at the heart of Hannah Nicklin’s autobiographical show, and each audience member’s own answer to that question is likely to determine their individual reaction to it. The piece, only a fragment of which is being shown at PULSE, is what the title suggests: a conversation. It’s a conversation Nicklin had with her father, the contents of which form the basis for the show, and a conversation with an audience in the room. It might be a little one-sided, but Nicklin is decidedly speaking to us, with her audience constantly in mind.
The impetus of the conversation is a political division that threatens to slice through the personal. Nicklin, as she explains to us, is a regular protestor. Her father, meanwhile, is a retired policeman, with experience of policing a number of protests throughout his career. The material is built around a negotiation of that division and its complexities, naturally opening out into myriad other explorations – of family, of political convictions, of fear and what is worth fighting for. In the 20 minute segment seen here, Nicklin contrasts the clothing she typically wears to a protest with her dad’s riot gear, a sort of show and tell that segues into anecdotes and implicit questions. We hear about the time Nicklin was threatened with arrest for wearing a scarf over her face during a march; we’re shown, without comment, a photograph of the family car bought using her dad’s overtime pay for policing the miners’ strikes in the 1980s.
It’s gentle, it’s inclusive, it’s quietly but persuasively angry and political in perhaps the least alienating way possible. Nicklin’s chosen staging is a perfect fit with her qualities as a performer, harnessing her unassuming warmth and humour to craft a piece that is brilliantly approachable. It just feels like a chat. This provides a distinct contrast with the irony that pervades the work elsewhere at the festival, where statements can be posited and immediately undermined or denied. Against this suspicion of sincerity, the decision to stand on stage and speak from a personal space about personal beliefs, without the cloak of irony or archness, feels surprisingly bold. It addresses the audience in an act of direct, unapologetic sharing, a sort of generosity and trust that invites generosity and trust in return.
And here is where that question of the political and the personal enters one’s experience of the show, determining how far this strikingly open approach will carry an audience. For me, with some – albeit limited – knowledge of Nicklin and her beliefs beyond the space of the performance, autobiography and politics become increasingly tangled. I am reminded, for example, of a speech I heard Nicklin give at Coney’s Show & Tell Salon about art and activism, almost involuntarily connecting the show I am now watching with those earlier reflections on what theatre can do as a collective art form. In that speech, Nicklin talked about the “hot metallic space” of performance, a fleeting community in which artists and audiences “breathe together”; she spoke about some of her previous work and its role in “constructing a mirror” for participants. I also have in my mind what I’ve read of the making process ofA Conversation With My Father on Nicklin’s blog, particularly the post in which Nicklin described being told by a fellow theatremaker that she had to decide whether it is the personal or the political that matters most in the show and she firmly stated that it is the personal – “it has to be”.
While it sounds glib to respond that the personal is political, I would suggest that A Conversation With My Father contains the promise of illustrating just how the intimate and personal can open up to an audience the possibility of wider political thought and action. At first glance, the piece is direct in its address yet indirect in its handling of political subject matter. It’s about Nicklin and her father first and the surrounding political landscape second. But those two things are not distinct from one another, just as it is futile to attempt to separate Nicklin’s personality from her politics. These are just the sort of binaries that the work itself implicitly refutes.
In the show, through the figures of Nicklin and her father, a space is traversed between the regularly invoked Us and Them. To me it seems similar to the space that Nicklin described at the Salon; it is “the community found in the in-between”. By opening this space, despite the tightly focused particularity of Nicklin’s personal narrative, the piece in fact presents that same mirror that she spoke about in her previous work. Audience members can see, reflected in the stories Nicklin offers of her and her father, the differences they face in their own lives and how these relate to their political beliefs and interactions. The offering of personal questioning on the part of the performer begs audiences to question in turn. And it is precisely through honesty – that oh so suspect opponent of irony – that this can be achieved.
Of course, there will no doubt be those who shy away from this approach or dismiss it as ineffectually self-indulgent. Autobiography in art tends to divide. But my response, like the show itself, is personal. It has to be.