Fast fashion has gone deep down a 90s rabbit hole, all psychedelic swirls and baggy jeans and highlighted strands – I wish culture would follow it there, sometimes, back to that place of anti-capitalist critique in the mainstream (however oddly it sat there) and rave-enabled non-conformism. I watched films like Reality Bites and The Truman Show and Trainspotting in lockdown, wondering what their makers would make of the 21st century’s newly inescapable corporate hellscapes – where identities are fully commodified, work seeps into every corner of the day, and once-distinct political positions (like supporting the NHS or LGBTQ+ rights) are blurred together and sanitised into cheery rainbow packaging and avatars.
There’s a sharp and invigorating line of anti-capitalist critique running through The Ballad of Corona V. So if you (understandably) want to forget all about the events of 2020 and step into a slightly-more-sunlit future, this isn’t the show for you. Venture inside The Big House, an Islington youth centre and arts venue, and you’re instantly thrown into in a party for dead people across history whose lives were ended by government malpractice. Or you’re in Boris Johnson’s fever dream in a Covid ward. Or you’re meeting the virus itself, in persona as a louche non-binary cowboy riding a tiny rocking horse.
Playwright David Watson and director Maggie Norris have created six joltingly strange, no-holds-barred scenes that force you to confront your own attitudes to the events of the last year, ones that are full of menace and mess, brought out in striking images by designers Eleanor Campbell and Keeler Tornero, whose aesthetic mixes Zoom-style screens, clinical sterility and graffiti-coated dilapidation. Each scene is performed by young people leaving care, who give a huge amount of passion and commitment to an eclectic collection of roles.
Taurean Steele’s thrillingly strange corona cowboy is a highlight, as is the Boris Johnson who’s played like an actor forgetting his lines, sweating and mumbling through a role that someone forgot to script, reeling after each fresh Scrooge-like encounter with the ill he’s done. But there are are so many other moments to remember, like the frenzied Panic Buy Dance (music by theatre’s-grime-artist-of-choice Jammz) played out with shopping trolleys against a glitching digital backdrop, or the desperation of a young girl who breaks into a hospital ward to see her dying mother – and furiously take her to task for her selfishness.
Everyone’s angry about what’s happened over the past year, however deeply they’ve buried those feelings, so there’s a potential for all this to feel affirmatory or preaching-to-the-converted. But Watson’s approach is teasing and twisting, rather than didactic. It was easy to guess how the scene between a jolly, seemingly respectable mum who works in advertising and the drug dealer posing as a postman might end – but the expected confrontation of middle class hypocrisies came with a dose of complication and surrealism, blurring the lines of the chalked #BlackLivesMatter murals they stand on. As in life, identity and political position aren’t synonymous, or consistent.
It also feels like young people’s voices twine their way into this story, building empathy for the kind of attitudes it’s so easy to straight-out condemn. In one scene, a girl explains why she doesn’t care about social distancing. With no family around her and no job, her life was lonely before the pandemic, so she’s not shutting down any potential chances for connection that come her way. Other moments nod to 5G conspiracy theories, acknowledging the kind of understandable alienation from mainstream politics they spring from, rather than patronising or shutting them down out of hand.
I found myself thinking about David Hare’s play about his Covid-19 experience, Beat the Devil, which definitely had a kind of furious power, but was also so clear and essay-like in its aim at two clear foes – the virus, and the government’s incompetence – which stopped him living comfortably. There was right (and he was in it) and there was wrong (and the government was in it). Here, the virus and the government are just two slimy tentacles of a more slippery and nebulous problem, one that goes society-deep. One of the story’s throughlines is Corona V’s hunt for Stefan, a young man who’s next on the list to get sick – but loneliness and racist police violence are just as much of a threat to his fragile health.
At a time where so much theatre being staged is retreating safely behind the proscenium arch, and in well-trodden narrative territory, The Ballad of Corona V is so welcome. It reaches out towards you (in a socially-distanced kinda way) and gets you to relate to a set of messengers from other realities who fix you with an unflinching gaze. It unravels the smug media-created narratives around Covid-19 we’ve all been co-opted into. And then it leaves you to make new connections yourself, as you head home into a more familiar, more staid kind of world.
The Ballad of Corona V [The Remix] is on at The Big House until 26th June – more info and tickets here.