As I entered the Unicorn Theatre, my hands full of scarves and cups and leaflets, a man in round spectacles greeted me at the door and cheerfully shook my pinkie finger. As each person entered the theatre space, this man shook one hand after another, saying hello, asking after us, smiling and bouncing on the balls of his feet. The man was, of course, Shôn Dale-Jones.
It seems almost unfair to review his performance as one, even though Dale-Jones insists that by talking into a microphone onstage he is transformed into ‘the performer’ and his guests likewise become ‘the audience’. Whilst the show is a mix of fantasy and reality it is also ultimately a conversation about one man’s personal struggle to understand his position in society. In a jarring world in which his deceased father’s porcelain Duke of Wellington breaks and, elsewhere, refugees drown as they flee in boats from the Turkish coast, this proves a challenge. Dale-Jones tackles this dilemma through combining three seemingly different narratives: writing a film script, his mother breaking the Duke of Wellington, and refugees continuing to flee throughout Europe from Syria. In weaving them together he reminds the audience that we are essentially all part of the same story. And whilst we may have the choice to opt out of each other’s stories and walk away or turn off the television, these stories still continue. Dale-Jones’s question for himself and for us is: how do we opt in whilst also continuing to live our own lives?
All proceeds from the performance go directly to the Save the Children Refugee Crisis Appeal fund, providing a direct link between watching this show and opting in. Yet the performance itself also demonstrates how our lives are connected to others, even when we decide, like his mum, that “I don’t think I’ll watch the news tonight”. It is easy to feel worldless, Dale-Jones tells us. And it’s hard to understand that watching the world of the refugees on the news is really an act of watching our world. Perspective, it seems, is our way to opt-in. When we consider how much we are willing to pay to replace our father’s favourite collectable, and compare that to how much a single refugee pays for a space on a boat, we recognise comparative value. The value of what we do in our daily lives is still important, and it connects to the rest of the world. Perhaps we are not doing anything concrete; we are not changing policies on immigration, we are not signing a cease-fire agreement, but we are recognising our worldly value as individuals.
Dale-Jones often add in asides that feel neither staged nor improvisational (that is, not performative). At the performance I attended, a child was startled by the loudness of the microphone, so he stopped to check in with the child before resuming. On another occasion, as he described his wife carrying three boxes of priceless figurines, he stopped to reassure a woman who was clutching her face in horror that his wife does not drop the boxes. “So you can relax, don’t worry,” he told her. “That’s not the point of this story.”
So what is the point of making one’s struggle into a public exchange between a man with a microphone and an audience? On answer would be that, as an audience, we can listen to each other’s stories, and – like his friends who came together to help his mother find another Duke of Wellington – we can add value to each other’s lives. It is not a complete solution, but it is a partial roadmap for a reality in which we value our father’s possessions, our own creative endeavours, and the lives of those paying all they can for a chance to survive.
The Duke is on at the Unicorn Theatre (until 18 October + 17 Nov); Soho Theatre (17 –22 Oct); Cambridge Junction (27 + 28 Oct, 1 Nov); Royal Court Theatre (28 Nov – 2 Dec); Barbican (15, 16, 17 Dec). Click here for more details of the Unicorn shows.