I find it remarkable every time I go that there are so many people awake at the Fringe at 9am. Not only awake, but willing to watch two plays and get to a theatre in time for a complimentary breakfast roll.
There is a ritual to it that I am grateful for. The early start creates, for three consecutive days, a much-needed routine in the Fringe’s otherwise choppy, changeable daily timetable. On day one I learn to avoid the free coffee (terrible stuff) and am irked by rules governing the breakfast rolls: one filling only. But as the days go on, I see that this is enforced fairly – no exceptions – and I respect that. Rules are important.
We are welcomed in and told (on all three days) how ‘Youthquake’ was the Oxford English Dictionary’s ‘Word of the Year’ in 2017, which, I remember anew each day, was only last year. “A significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influences of young people,” is the meaning given. In response to this, Traverse asked a selection of playwrights to write plays reacting to the word. This year, there are two each day: one from the Traverse Young Writers’ group and another from one of their mentors – “leading British playwrights” all – whose age bracket is never discussed. A small cast emerges carrying black ring-binders and we begin.
Breakfast Plays is a series of conversation pieces. Everything about the scheduling – from the early start, which leaves space for a morning of discussion, to the use of a fixed theme around which the audience can compare the pieces – invites the audience to converse. The idea of having two shorter plays on each of the three mornings – as opposed to one play per slot in previous years – pays dividends. For the audience it not only means the chance to compare and contrast right from day one, but it’s also a new axis on which to make those comparisons: do the younger and older playwrights approach the topic differently? It also means twice as many plays to talk about, and welcome scope for diverse voices.
So what are this year’s talking points? I can see two big ones. The most common question posed by these plays is about the legitimacy of authority and control: the older generation are generally assumed to have it, but why? And what should they be allowed to do with it? Squall by Rebecca Sweeney probably tackles this most directly. In a speculative near-future Scotland, with America-style gun violence (school shootings, guns next to the tools at B&Q etc), pupils Rob, Alice and Erin (Michael Ajao, Jamie Marie Leary and Kay McAllister) are hauled up inside a stock cupboard whilst their school is on lock-down. Sweeney smartly switches the characters’ understanding of the situation outside the cupboard more than once during the piece, each new revelation calling into question the legitimacy of the teachers’ rules and the strategies they employ (ostensibly) for the pupils’ safety.
In Kieran Hurley’s partner piece, Fucking Millennials, headteacher Iain (Mark McDonnell) visits a brothel and comes face-to-face with former pupil Zara (Kay McAllister), who now works there to pay off her student debt. They end up debating the virtues and vices of their two generations – millennials vs baby boomers. The script is far better than this premise suggests: the dialogue turns on a penny, with the voice of authority switching between the characters so that the audience’s sympathies constantly shift beside it.
Ella Hickson’s Grout tackles this question a little less subtly when an older resident (Joanna Tope) asks her young neighbour (Rehanna Macdonald), “Why should you be sure of what I say?” “Because you’re older,” the younger counterpart replies. Its partner piece Old Enough by Laurie Motherwell imagines a future where the age of consent (for sex, buying alcohol and cigarettes, voting and seemingly anything else that is currently for ‘adults’) is being moved to 25 by a paternalistic big-state government. A couple straddling that age divide, 26-year-old Poll (Christian Ortega) and early-20s Jo (Rehanna Macdonald) navigate their new situation in a cheap hotel room on the night of the new law’s introduction. Like their equivalents in the cupboard in Squall, their dialogue wrestles with a predicament thrust on them by an older generation whose primary motives – control or protection – remain to the end contested and ambiguous.
Uniquely amongst these plays, Lurker by Natalie Mackinnon gives voice solely to the play’s older character (played by Neshia Caplan), who has become obsessed with the apparent disappearance of a young YouTuber. The speaker’s protectiveness is unambiguously sinister, although Mackinnon’s script reveals this slowly so that, again, authority still shifts and slides in ways that make the audience question and second-guess ourselves.
Its partner piece, a series of thematically linked monologues and discussions The Things I Would Tell You (By Some Young British Muslim Women) is curated by Sabrina Mahfouz and is partly adapted from the anthology of the same name. On the surface, this work fits the ‘Youthquake’ brief the least well of all six plays: the script is more concerned with religion, ethnicity and gender than it is with age. And yet, there are some similarities here. One monologue describes a girl’s contrasting experiences of schooling – from mixed comprehensive to Islamic private school – and the kinds of authority and control that are enacted (or not) in each. Another speaker – in the form of an extraordinary performance poem – describes the shifting and changing meaning of her body from childhood to adulthood, both the meanings ascribed by her community and those she chooses for herself.
A secondary – but equally intriguing – talking point in this year’s Breakfast Plays concerns the legacy of millennials. Not the legacy that millennials have inherited but something we talk about less: the legacy that they will leave. Hurley’s script does this the best. Just as the argument begins to rest in familiar territory, on the selfishness and irresponsibility of the baby boomers and 1960s hippy culture, Iain not only mounts a surprising defence, but pushes it back onto Zara: how long can millennials blame their parents for the mess the world is in? What about when they are the parents?
The future posited in Old Enough might provide an answer. As Jo and Poll’s dialogue develops and more and more, somewhat oblique references to their world emerge and the script suggests that they may be the generation after the millennials. Certain trends have come to a peak far worse than they are in the real present day: student debt has grown and been restructured so that repayments now exceed wages; over-consumption has led to dramatically reduced life expectancies. So a new government is finally sorting it out: the millennials are pushing the pendulum back – all the way back. Whilst the details themselves stretch plausibility, Motherwell explores an interesting question: what will we do?
It’s interesting too that it’s Motherwell and Hurley – although themselves not especially old – who search the furthest into questions surrounding generational change and how a generation’s image and status will inevitably change when they are no longer considered young. Poll tells Jo, “Someone told me we’re the generation who are going to save the world”. I’ve been told that too. And I expect the baby boomers were as well.
Rather than celebrate youth, as the programming of Traverse Young Writers’ group might have suggested, Breakfast Plays celebrates the quality of each playwright distinctively and their diversity as a group, whilst being sometimes critical of both youth and age. The writing of the newer playwrights generally stands up well alongside that of the established ones- and the overall quality of the strand is particularly impressive given there are six separate commissions. In fact, it’s a commission by a younger writer, The Things I Would Tell You, energetically directed here by Caitlin Skinner and performed with abandon by Neshla Caplan, Houda Echouafni and Serena Manteghi, that seems most likely to find an afterlife beyond the Breakfast Plays.
So if you don’t mind an early alarm (and can somehow get tickets) I would particularly recommend Squall, Fucking Millennials, The Things I Would Tell You… and the haggis roll.
Breakfast Plays: Youthquake is on until 26 August 2018 at Traverse Theatre. Click here for more details.