We Are Not Finished is, apparently, Fevered Sleep’s interrogation of the question, “What if children refused to be complicit in the reality that adults create for them?” The company directors, David Harradine and Samantha Butler, worked with children aged 8 – 17 on the provocation, and together they came up with this show. And the kids in it are great. They easily command the stage with their presence. Their performances are committed, dynamic, full of poise and promise. But for all the production’s talk of refusal and activism, for all its pulse and strobe, there is ultimately something constrained and feeble about it.
Thirteen children move around a stage that slopes steeply down towards the audience.The kids are wearing their own clothes: trackie bottoms, oversized t-shirts. They run and jump, or sit still. They split into pairs, trios, gangs, and split again. They sprawl and melt, sliding down the slope. They dance, finding ways to let their bodies pick up the music and the light. These periods of movement, directed by Nathan Goodman, recurring throughout the show, are often lovely.
There’s a great bit when the music pumps up and the lights flash and the kids are all running around and then without warning one of them just pitches himself straight over the sharp edge of the stage and out of sight and then suddenly they all start chucking themselves over the ledge and the music’s still going and it’s dark light dark light and all these kids are just throwing themselves into oblivion and somehow out again.
It looks and sounds cool, too, if a little self-consciously so. Descriptions of Mariam Rezaei’s music scroll across two onstage screens. And the drums, the drums, the drums! they read. It’s loud enough to thrum in the bones of your chest. Bright white LEDs flare and strobe in Hansjörg Schmidt’s designedly anarchic lighting, randomised for every performance. There’s some nice, effective use of tech throughout. When one of the kids talks to the audience, another transcribes speech to text on a nearby laptop and it appears on the screens full of rushed, breathless spelling mistakes.
The main problem is the stuff they’re saying. The children take turns speaking into microphones, directly to the adults in the audience. They ask questions, they tell us how they feel, they make demands. It’s disarming, to an extent, because they’re baby-faced and angry. But everything they say sounds horribly generic, even platitudinous. They ask things like WHY DIDN’T YOU TEACH US HOW TO DREAM? and what are we going to do about Patriarchy and the Climate Crisis and Racism – but the thing is, we know, we already know those things are bad. They tell us they feel sad and anxious. They say I DON’T FEEL SEEN, I FEEL WATCHED. But it doesn’t sound much like the real, wild, imaginative vision of the world that I’m pretty sure they would be capable of having. It’s so vague. They talk about Hope, Love, Dreams, Fear, Hate: concepts too big to actually mean anything. There’s a manufactured weirdness occasionally at play in the production – at one point the kids all appear in plastic animal heads – but there’s little real weirdness. WE WANT YOU TO VALUE KINDNESS OVER POWER, they say, and I’m sorry, but that’s such a disturbingly un-radical demand.
I’m not sure whose fault this is. On the wall at the back of the stage, there’s a massive picture of a wolf and a bear snarling at each other in the snow. It reminds me of a poster of a tiger that I bought when I was about twelve years old. The tiger is bounding through a snowy landscape directly towards the viewer, under the words RUNNING WILD. I used to think this poster had a deep and profound meaning, like I very genuinely believed that this poster spoke truly and deeply to the idea of Freedom, when I was twelve. Young teenagers aren’t always the best judges of what constitutes genuine profundity. If you’re not careful they’ll come up with some kind of tiger-in-the-snow or wolf-and-bear melty bullshit and then you have to make a full-length show out of that. Maybe that’s what happened here. It’s clear from the programme notes that Harradine and Butler have worried thoughtfully about how to co-create theatre with children: “How do we work alongside and with these young performers, without erasing their agency with our own professional authority? How do we amplify and celebrate their voices, at the same time as doing our own work as artists?” It seems like they haven’t quite found the right answers.
Right at the very end, one of the boys starts to tell a story about the future. He begins, “There is walking from Clapton to Lea Bridge Road at about 6.30…” and finally, finally, we are given a local habitation and a name and the piece deepens briefly and beautifully into a moment that feels specific and true. But it must come at the end because someone made the (correct) editorial decision that it was the best bit of the show, and if that’s the case, then how did so much bland waffle take over the bulk of the piece? Despite the bear’s claws and the wolf’s fangs, We Are Not Finished is disappointingly toothless.
We Are Not Finished was on at The Place from 10-13th November 2021. More info and tickets here.