Gary Clarke’s show Coal was an examination of the decline of the mining industry; its sequel, Wasteland, looks at what happened next, exploring how rave culture grew up to reclaim the industrial spaces that the decimation of the country’s heavy industry left abandoned.
Wasteland starts as elegy. Against a backdrop of newsreel footage cataloguing the brutal dismantling of the pits, a devastated ex-miner (an emotive Alistair Goldsmith) is left aimless, the removal of the twin anchors of work and community literally leaving him reeling. But as his son (a powerfully raw Reece Calver) seeks escape in a new kind of music, the piece morphs into something akin to celebration, as he and his friends anaesthetise themselves against the bleakness of their lives with the illicit excitement of the rave scene (dancers Robert Anderson, Jake Evans, Elena Thomas Voilquin, Emily Thompson-Smith are all impressive).
As someone with only a minimal understanding of contemporary dance and an antipathy to rave music (I was always an indie kid, myself), I recognise fully I am not the target audience for this piece. At times – especially at the beginning – it felt a little slow to my untrained eyes, though I suspect that is because the nuance of some of the solo routines went over my head. There’s plenty to admire for the non-aficionado, though. The routine where Calver, wearing headphones alone in his bedroom, slowly spirals into the release of his music is genuinely moving, and the ensemble pieces deftly capture the intense, kinetic energy of a rave.
The production draws a parallel between the heavy-handedness of the police in the miners’ strike to the authoritarian stance towards illegal raves, urged on by a tabloid-fuelled moral panic. Having defeated the miners, the piece points out, the country needed a new ‘enemy within’. There are some witty design touches (former KLF-member Jimmy Cauty’s smiley riot shields are particularly pleasing) and the community cast of singers and brass band musicians are well-deployed, reminding us that rave wasn’t some alien event that came from nowhere, more a continuation of working class cultural expression and rebellion.
The piece both touches on, and to some degree falls victim to, some of the issues that plagued the rave scene, most notably an almost fetishistic focus on the male experience to the exclusion of all else (the toxic laddishness that is still over-revered in today’s society stems in part from this period, and the play – with its majority male cast – seems too casually to ignore the fact that when communities crumble, women tend to be affected even more, though often less obviously, than men). But it also smartly draws a fairly straight line between the decline of an industry that disenfranchised men from the roles that had traditionally defined them (as miners, respected as part of their community and as their family breadwinners) to their sons, with no such jobs awaiting them, creating a music scene where a laddish masculinity was centred, where they could strut and swagger with their mates, unjudged – a sharp contrast to the androgyny of the indie scene, with its floppy-haired art-school student boys in their skinny jeans and eyeliner.
Wasteland was at Northern Stage from 25th-26th September. It tours until 13th November. More info here.