We’re on the ninth floor of a multi-storey car park. We’re in the sky. This is not the normal view of the city. Cars’ brake lights are hot embers skittering along below. Medium-tall buildings don’t look down at us, are our peers, their panels with sporadic yellow eyes meeting ours. So much more space in the city up here. Where the wind is.
I don’t own a car though, I don’t drive. We’re in a car park – we’re not flying or anything, this is a very ordinary place.
Peaceophobia is a show about caring about shit and loving it and taking care. This happens through the action of car maintenance. Three blokes tell us about their cars. I don’t care about cars but listening to someone else talk sincerely about something they care about? I love that shit. Mohammad, Casper and Sohail tell us about their cars.
And the story of doing up and maintaining cars and hanging out with other people who love cars is a story of passion and self-discipline. It’s a story about building connections with people through a collective love. Throughout the show, they assemble a car in front of us, fit headlamps, that sort of thing (and shit, I’m sorry but I can’t even tell you the manufacturer).
And if I wanted to write a certain kind of review I could try to create a religious metaphor to describe the car stuff. It’s tempting – maybe polishing the bonnet is a kind of mediation, the car is a locus around which a practice is built, maintaining it is a kind of observance. I could ask questions like, what’s more of a religion, Islam or cars? But obviously the answer is Islam, that’s a daft question.
These blokes are Muslim, they tell us that. They grew up in Bradford. They remember the Bradford riots, when they were kids. These are all things that connect them, all part of who they are as much as their faith is. And idunno, seeing one part of that as representing or overriding all the other parts feels ungenerous, feels dangerous.
Part of the thesis of Peaceophobia is that cities are nothing without people. Which isn’t a particularly radical sentiment until you also account for what they mean by ‘people’, which isn’t a citizenry made up of faceless, amorphous ‘types’. Largely, what Peaceophobia does is give us three portraits of the men who were involved in its making. On paper, they’re all pretty similar. But they’re not on paper. They’re here, they’re people, they’re different and they connect to the things they love and care about in different ways, for different reasons.
The police are a gross and blunt detail of this wretched island. Here, they are a force for oppression which Does Not Care about the details of these men’s devotion to a hobby, nor for the details of their lives or their faiths or the differences between them. They’ve all been arrested or detained by the police without charge. They explain to us the codes British police use to refer to them – ‘IC3’ means Black, ‘IC4’ means Asian. The police are ghouls who flatten the portraits we might otherwise see into paper. To resist this flattening is to risk violence, and the safest response is often patient compliance.
Our cities may be multifarious and beautiful, but they are marbled with the presence of the police. Their corrupting influence changes what Peaceophobia is about. This would be a much nicer show without the presence of the police, but it would also be more distanced from reality. What we end up with is not just a show celebrating a passion which brings people together, but a depiction of the tension and scrutiny that passion comes under, when its proponents are forced beneath an oppressive lens.
If there is radical potential, or a radical message, in Peaceophobia, it is in its assertion of the difference of these three men who have so much in common. In how it is governed and policed, the British city interpolates us, so many round pegs into a single, giant square hole. Arts funding does the same, and the makers of theatre are cajoled into seeing both audiences and participants through the categories they broadly fit – our time and money are strained, and the path of least resistance is that which fits the dominant ideology.
What Common Wealth have done, though — what Zia Ahmed, Mohammad Ali Yunis, Casper Ahmed, and Sohail Hussain have written together — is a piece of theatre which refuses to agree.
Right near the end, the sound design falls away, and there’s just one man on stage, singing solo, and it’s fuckin beautiful. And we’re not in a theatre, we’re on the ninth floor of a car park and the city is all around us and below and above us. The railway goes by, and there’s a rumble of trains, and on one of the roads below a siren cuts under this bloke’s voice. Because we’re in Manchester _ its metropolitan police force hasn’t stopped its swarming.
The is city implied, is the background state. But the important parts are foreground, the people we meet with, the things we notice and speak about.
Thinking about the Bradford riots — ‘riot’ is a political state, the name of an offence. The name we give it (and the Brixton riots, the Moss Side riots, the Oldham riots…) names the historical event with carceral language, with the language of the police.
What this all does — structural analysis included — is make roles out of people, out of interactions, locations. Like, sure power dynamics are important but what sticks with me? They drove a fucking car at me, that’s exciting. They spoke to us, like directly to us. They saw us, they asked us to see them. One of them has a beautiful singing voice.
I do believe the broad strokes are important. For one thing, they give background to the details.
Peaceophobia ran at Q-Park First Street Car Park, Manchester, between 29 September and 2 October. More info here.