Drag artist Ms Sharon Le Grand is wearing a ballgown and top emblazoned with ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and lipsyncing to one of Boris Johnson’s endless media statements: ‘The crocus of hope is poking through the err frost and spring is on its way both literally and metaphorically’. Taken up by other performers, this overstrained metaphor mutates into a catchy melody (composed by Nick Powell). Its saccharine political spin is undercut by a punky spoken chorus that asks, ‘Who will profit from disaster?’, mingling optimism for the prospect of an easing of lockdown with a reminder of the societal inequalities that COVID-19 has brought into stark relief.
The ‘Front Page’ of the third edition of the Royal Court’s Living Newspaper project sets the tone for the 15 short, rapid-response pieces (written by 14 authors) that follow. The plays are performed by an ensemble of actors in spaces around the Royal Court’s building, from the main stage to the bookshop. Many of the plays feel distinctively Royal Court-y in their combination of the political and experimental theatricality. Yet, as the project deliberately gives voice (and paid work) to so many theatre workers each week, it’s a challenge to write about Living Newspaper in its entirety. This hybridity, along with the palpable energy of collective and rapid creation, also makes it highly galvanising to watch.
This group of writers’ responses to current events range from the scatological (Sami Ibrahim’s recreation of an eighteenth-century cartoon featuring a Boris Johnson lookalike with explosive diarrhoea) to cabaret (a surprisingly moving rendition of ‘We are the Cheeky Girls’ performed by Le Grand at the end of Travis Alabanza’s ‘An Ode to the Underground and Ms Sharon Le Grand’). There is a risk inherent in the format of the Living Newspaper that plays might become merely reportage. However, generally the writers navigate this well, transmuting the familiar into something unexpected and theatrical. ‘Emily (Glitched) in Paris’ by Zain Dada inserts a colonial history lesson into a waiter’s spiel. Anupama Chandrasekhar’s ‘A Fascist’s Guide to Democracy’ has the entertaining and alarming premise of a dictator providing instructional YouTube videos for people looking to follow in his footsteps. Very different in tone, in ‘Eulogy for a dead life’ Sukh Ojla delivers a thoughtful monologue by Gurpreet Kaur Batti contemplating what it means to mourn for a parent you had a difficult relationship with.
One of my favourite pieces was Rebecca Prichard’s ‘She Blows Ltd.’, which reimagines demon barber Sweeney Todd for the world of post-lockdown haircuts. A hairdresser (Sophie Melville) nods along as her client (Susan Brown) tells her that she has learned to appreciate the little things in life, then proceeds to bludgeon her to death with a hairdryer and dispatch another customer with a cleaver to the parting. In a parallel scene, Tom Mothersdale chats to an increasingly concerned Beth Hinton-Lever about his neighbour’s murder of her husband as he does her hair. The performers deftly balance deadpan humour with horror, helped by inspired, socially distanced staging, in which the hairdressers manipulate wigs while their clients sit 2 metres in front of them. In monologues towards the end of the piece, there are hints of a more lyrical reflection on rising rates of domestic violence in lockdown, but this is not fully developed.
On the more light-hearted end of the spectrum, Siobhán McSweeney’s performance in Horoscopes by Josh Elliott and Eve Leigh is a delight. A cross-between a cynical Sybil Trelawney and a hard-drinking hack writer, her astrological predictions range from the personal – ‘Fuck you Dad’ – to the portentous – ‘A Capricorn is a walking anxiety disorder’. The filming lavishes attention on the details of her performance, including a lovely moment when McSweeney comes eye-to-eye with a stuffed fox in pearls. McSweeney also shines in ‘New Order’ by Margaret Perry, a monologue comprised of messages from delivery companies chronicling a character’s attempts to buy herself happiness. Again, the directing is strong, with McSweeney gnawing anxiously on bubble wrap and being immured in cardboard till only her eyes are visible.
The work of the Design Collective, led by Cara Evans and Chloe Lamford, gives the production a strong visual identity and makes discovering each space as exciting as discovering each play. The ‘Crocus of Hope’ song is performed in the Downstairs auditorium, but the positioning of the camera makes it seem like the viewer is on the stage, watching the performers in the stalls and the circle, draped with a red curtain and trailing bunting. The opportunity to encounter nooks and crannies of the Royal Court through the performances creates a strong sense of place, something which is often a casualty of online theatre. Yet watching the Front Page live over Zoom also made me miss sharing the theatre space with the performers intensely, as if I was watching a glittering, messy experiment in which I could not fully participate. For all its occasional unwieldiness, Living Newspaper does seem to be coming into its own in its online-only form, without the additional demand of hosting in-person audiences. The next edition is out already.
Living Newspaper is on until 2nd May, with a new edition being released each week. More info here.