STAND, the latest work from Chris Goode and Co., feels a little like a coffee morning. Not your regular coffee morning, if you have a regular coffee morning, but a particularly special coffee morning where the gentle rhythms of relaxed conversations gradually draw remarkable stories from remarkable people, whose ordinariness belies a spark of the extraordinary while is gradually insisting on itself over the biscuits and teacups.
Goode has interviewed six people about a time in their lives when they took a stand, chose to act, became activists in the sense that they made a decision to actively participate in a social change, however large or small, whether campaigning for a new way of life or for the protection of an old one.
As in Monkey Bars, but with rather older and less self-assured subjects, Goode has arranged these contributions into a subtle and open narrative, placing them in the mouths of performers (the sense of familiarity increased by returning faces Gwyneth Strong and Cathy Tyson), but here, rather than the incongruity of childish words in adult voices, we have six characters presented with an eye for verisimilitude. Goode swerves them clear of both direct impersonations and polished creations, they exist both in the moment of their interview (Strong at one point leaving the stage to check on some baking in the oven) and in this new conversation with a listening audience.
It’s a gentle and intimate setup – non-confrontational, candid and languid, good-natured and glad of its opportunity to emerge. Created last year in Oxford, STAND captures the air of that city – town in preference to gown – like seaside breeze caught in the folds of an outdoor coat. The subjects are adoption, animal rights, the wholesale destruction of the boatyard communities, student climate change activism and immigrant detainment centres. They’re familiar as subjects for reportage and polemic – for drawing the anger, or the sympathy, of the left-wing press. The characters here are left-wing too, or at least, we suspect, left-leaning, but they’re not wearing their anger on their sleeves, and they’re not speaking to argue, convince or even state their case. Their decisions to act and to get involved are complex and personal, they blend the apparently frivolous with the vehement, as so many decisions do. They are sometimes self-aware, and then sometimes they are not.
The elephant in the room is ‘cosy’, probably (not in that sense, though as Goode once again produces work that would pass his own cat test, it perfectly well could be), or ‘privileged’. To be cosy is unfortunately a privilege, after all, and it’s not interrogated directly, but allowed to reveal itself gradually and its importance and the part it has to play in our political lives and landscape.
These people are middle class. One is studying at the University, at least one other is a graduate of it, another is comfortably retired, another clearly bakes buns or whatever. They are not on the sharp end of austerity or discrimination, and they don’t pretend to be. None of them has given over their lives or their livelihoods to a cause. One man, who speaks with almost tearful eloquence about his work with SPEAK against the Oxford vivisection labs, gives up his Thursday afternoons. One man has occupied a boatyard for a while, and laughs at his own absurdity in invoking Che Guevara when he enthuses about it. One woman thinks her friends at work laugh about her Climate Camp trips behind her back, but she doesn’t really mind. A student got into it all because the rep at his Union induction was really fit, but actually now he’s got the bug.
At one point I worried that these were the kind of people on the left who Anders Lustgarten described as ‘pussies’ last week, which made me cross with everyone (including them, myself, and Lustgarten), but then I re-read his comment and I saw he was actually referring to the people who ‘run’ the left. And that’s not this lot. But what they are doing is making a decision in their lives to portion off time and effort to improve the world as they see it because they genuinely want it to be better and fairer. STAND doesn’t describe a fight, or even bravery, but it does speak about community, and solidarity, and the kind of people who form those things and the kind of actions which create them.
Theatrically, it’s a static piece, with the performers sat in front of grey screens, reading from their notes, some with a simple prop or visual cue on a table standing beside them. It’s visually inert, but then so are most genuine live interactions (the clothed ones, anyway) and as genuine live interactions are the thing which Goode as a director is an utter master of, then that’s fine. The design from Naomi Dawson is appropriately free from distraction, and Goode contributes a subtle but moving score. It’s not white-knuckle stuff, but then neither are canal boats, and neither are most activist meetings.
Taking into account the ‘middle class’ thing, these are undeniably quite ordinary people. Coffee morning ordinary, the best kind. But ordinariness is disputed territory these days. We’re told that UKIP speak for ‘ordinary’ people, and that Labour and the Tories must think of more outrageous cruelties to win them over. The Liberal Democrats used to be a popular home for the kind of ‘ordinary’ people we see in STAND, before they died of hypocrisy poisoning. They might vote Green now, but we don’t get to hear from them very often so it’s difficult to say.
STAND doesn’t ‘give them a voice’, they largely have one already – they’d pass muster with the media and they’d probably speak up in local council debates where they’d certainly be welcomed – but it does give us time to listen to them, and consider the part they play in the sleepy but heartening suburbs of the modern left. They’re not likely to smash the system anytime soon, they may not be the first to hoist the banner of revolution, but they’ll probably help whoever it is that does, and hand their humanity and their quiet epiphanies on to those that they meet. We need them – most of us are them, and STAND is a cheering, healing eighty minutes in their company, mediated with Goode’s characteristic generosity and skill.