I don’t think of the main space at the Royal Exchange as a ‘gig’ venue. When I think about the word ‘gig’ I think of a room above a pub, or a cellar, or a weird concrete yard, a PA that barely works, the smell of smoke. A gig, to me evokes, something thrown together and tenuous. Something which is more than anything else kept together by the audience and performers’ will that it should happen. Not necessarily a shonky or amateur mode of performance, but one that is able to accommodate shonky and amateur elements and for that not to matter.
The Royal Exchange is far from a room above a pub. The PA is always fucking excellent, there isn’t just sound and lights, there’s sound and lighting design. It’s a huge place. Everything echoes, there’s so much space. Very unshonky.
But there is something tenuous about tonight. There is. It’s been so long since I’ve been in this huge hall with its steel spider of a theatre in the centre. I don’t trust the world. The theatre industry has been holding its breath. Yes, stuff has still been happening – and brilliant stuff at that. And the Exchange itself has still been making work, but not in here, not for this space. And I still don’t trust that things are returning. I don’t believe this country is on a route out of this pandemic. Every time I book a ticket at the moment, I expect it likely the event will be cancelled. I do hope I’m wrong.
‘Gig’ isn’t just about space. Space is the first thing I think about but. If I’m ‘gigging’ I’m working from one job to the next – maybe I’m employed and earning this week, but next week I could be heading to the Job Centre. If I’m gigging, I’m doing work I care about but not work that’s going to pay my rent all year. Everything is temporary and my landlord is looking over my shoulder.
It is crass to draw a metaphor comparing tentative employment to the challenges venues have faced this year. Because yes it’s been hard for us all but of course the stakes are different if you’re an organisation or a building and of course if the Royal Exchange Theatre thrives that’s not a barometer for how well I or any other self-employed person is doing. But the Exchange had to lay off a lot of a lot of staff last year, and a lot of those staff were artists working part-time to pay their rents. So you can take the last fifteen months and look for the distances or you can look for the connections. Sometimes what seems a big distance is actually a chain of small connections.
Structural distance is what Bloody Elle is about. Elle is at a distance from the people around her; there’s a fundamental separation between her and every other character. None of them understand her and her structural position, as working class, as a woman, as a lesbian, as a daughter, as a young person. When she does find a point of connection, in Eve, their relationship is still defined by a power imbalance. Eve’s family are fucking loaded, and posh people work in a different way. Even though she shies away from making her own choices, Eve has choices, has more agency than Elle and is able to leave. After they are both outed, adopting the cover of compulsory heterosexuality is an option for Eve and she takes it and runs.
But of course that heterosexuality is still a trap. Eve shuts herself inside it and leaves Elle outside. Elle is left to figure herself out and make her own choices and carve out her own life. If ‘gig’ is tentative then we can call being Queer a gig – every time you come out, who knows how well it’s going to go? But then, the more gigs you do, the better you get at it. And you start to realise that some audiences were never on your side, so the night was never going to be an easy one, but maybe there was someone at the back of the room who saw you, who felt something. Maybe there’ll be more people like that at the next one.
If ‘gig’ is tentative, if it is powered by the will of the people involved, if it exists for them in spite of things working against them, then, yknow, we’re here aren’t we? We’ve got our masks on and we’ve got to keep distance and sanitise our hands but somehow this old theatre thing got thrown on, finally, didn’t it? Maybe it’ll be easier next time.
And Elle does well. She does really fucking well. And she does that by being herself and doing the hard gigs, but doing the gigs regardless. Bloody Elle is a love story, yes, but it’s a story about Elle discovering love and understanding that it isn’t easy or perfect but that it’s something she is capable of and should be proud of. There are distances – sometimes insurmountable – between her and the people around her, yes. But she’s also capable of connections, strong connections and bonds which last.
One of the things going through my head watching Bloody Elle was the list of people I was going to recommend this show to. Even though the seats either side of me were empty, those people were with me. Because I guess that’s what theatre is, isn’t it? Making connections, between ideas, people, stories. And it’s also people’s jobs – it’s my job, one of them. So I want it back. I want everyone back in the Exchange and I want it to be busy and bustling again and I know it’s not as simple as clicking your fingers but I don’t want incremental change, I want everything and I want it at once.
Here’s a show, which carves out a bit of time to tell a love story that isn’t about a boy and a girl getting together and staying together to make babies until the end of time. Here’s a show about love, and about how love isn’t as simple as it seems because there are some distances that stretch love thin. And it’s a show about being a source of love, for yourself as much as for other people, and finding strength and comfort and meaning in that. And it’s a show about gigs – about the world being hard to hold together but that it is worth doing something even when things might fall apart.
Bloody Elle is on at Royal Exchange Manchester until 17th July 2021. More info and tickets here.