In the midst of a festival in which much of the work, however brilliant, is simply stopping off on a nomadic tour of the summer festival circuit, it’s refreshing to see a piece with firm ties to both Ipswich and the New Wolsey. Frequently Asked Questions is the scratch offering from the New Wolsey Young Associates, a group of 18-21 year olds involved with the theatre both to gain industry experience and to offer their own youthful perspective on the venue’s programming. What is also refreshing to see from a young company is genuine, energised, fresh curiosity, about both theatremaking and the world. They just want to ask questions.
Some of the questions are old and familiar, some are timeless, some are new, some are bizarre, some are profound and some are banal. But all of them are refracted through a youthful, galvanised lens, lending even the oldest questions revitalised urgency. The young performers seem neither naively assured of their own originality nor wearily inhibited by a self-awareness that tells them everything has already been done by their artistic predecessors. There’s an acknowledgement of quotation and reproduction – Baudrillard is invoked, while playful air quotes are repeatedly deployed – but this is not a barrier to the company’s questioning. There’s a healthy sense of “it might have been done before, but not by me”.
The frame for asking the piece’s questions is still emerging, currently incorporating monologues, playful exchanges between the performers and a tombola-inspired section involving the audience, during which we select questions to be answered and receive prizes in exchange (Doctor Who stickers for me, just in case you were wondering). There’s something still not fully explored in this nod to the gameshow format, perhaps implying that in life, unlike in play, there are no shiny rewards for getting the answers right. But what it does offer is an atmosphere of playfulness that feels apt for the work, particularly as it continues to develop.
Of course, one of the potential problems with indiscriminately asking all these questions alongside one another, juxtaposing existential crisis with small talk, is that meaning becomes lost. Similarly to the relentless interrogation of Forced Entertainment’s Quizoola, there’s the danger of immediately undermining any moments of truth that might emerge. Yet this piece in its current form somehow manages to simultaneously wear its heart on its sleeve, its performers seeming to offer up something of themselves in a way that is often sidestepped by the established companies from whom they take their cue. At times it is surprisingly moving and unafraid to be so.
Although the show’s range of questions is broad, a recurring concern is to do with the pervasive culture of advertising speak and images and the transformation of everything into empty simulacra. There’s anxiety about what we can now understand as “real”, about the reckless anonymity fostered by the internet, and about the near impossibility of authenticity. These repeated worries perhaps reflect a concern from the performers about their own work and its balance between influence and resistance in struggling to gain a distinct identity. It’s a question that is increasingly difficult for young companies burdened with the weight of performance history to begin answering. What’s thrilling, however, is to encounter young artists who are not about to give up asking.
That questioning continues in The Six O’Clock News, in which more of the young company are joined by Daniel Bye, Sarah Punshon, John Osborne and Made in China to create rapid-response pieces tackling the weekend’s news headlines. Rough around the edges as these short sketches naturally are, there’s inventiveness, wit and an acerbic eye for the manipulations of the mainstream media. A brilliantly observed skit using cardboard box televisions over heads – a visual gag that’s certainly not new but seems to contain evergreen comedic potential – perfectly skewers both the formal conventions of television news coverage and the media’s bizarre fascination with the banal minutiae of celebrity, while two imagined picture editors embody all the cynical manipulation of the controversy-courting tabloid culture.
Among the other inventive offerings from the New Wolsey Young Associates, there’s emotional sensitivity in a monologue focusing on one of the humans behind the headlines; a galvanising glance at the current protests in Istanbul; a wry pop at the giddy speculation around the casting of the new Doctor; and some hard-hitting “investigative journalism” involving a can of dog food, a spoon and a rather audacious claim from Sainsbury’s. As Made in China’s Jess Latowicki puts it, while offering us a tasty, sensation-infused sip of “text on the beach”, yum yum.