Coined by Thomas More for his 1516 book, the very word Utopia is double edged: both a ‘good place’ and ‘no place’ – an eternally alluring idea that is destined from the start to impossibility and failure. This latest collaboration between Soho Theatre and Newcastle’s Live Theatre examines this tempting, doomed ideal through a series of loosely collected sketches and the writings of thinkers through the ages, and while it adds up to a less satisfying whole than their previous joint project (the hugely entertaining political comedy A Walk-on Part) it remains a vibrant and energetic production.
White faced and dressed only in their underwear, six clowns work their way through various Utopian philosophies; these are the truest kind of clowns, Wise Fools, a beguiling mix of innocence and openness, tainted with a knowing cynicism, a world weariness that dismisses fallen states and political regimes with a shrug and a throwaway ‘that didn’t work out’.
The likeable and versatile cast gel well as an ensemble and, as they take multiple roles, they are all given an individual chance to shine. The production takes the form of a series of vignettes that are, by turns, satirical, funny and thought provoking: a young Obama-alike politician (Tobi Bakare) gives a rousing address bristling with such idealistic patriotism that it’s only as he descends into rampant anti-Semitism you realise it’s one of Hitler’s campaign speeches, a brutal reminder that what is paradise for some is hell for others; a comedian (Rufus Hound) falls flat on his face with a stand up routine because in Utopia there is no conflict, and therefore no laughter; a grizzled warlord (David Whitaker) abandons his child-army militia and his planned torture of terrified prisoner Sophia Myles when he realises how many people on Facebook disapprove of him.
But there is also surprising tenderness on display: a futuristic gameshow flounders when its alien hosts fail to understand the human capacity for self-sacrifice; a bitter old woman (Pamela Miles) condemned to a care home (those faux-Utopias where human decay is masked by names evoking Elysian Fields and rural paradises) finds unexpected companionship from her carer (a tender and gauche Laura Elphinstone). The action is complemented by Lucy Osborne’s deceptively simple but versatile set: decorated with tattered blueprints of abandoned futures, these diagrams are taken down, tested and discarded; the ceiling is also illuminated (occasionally rather too briefly) with quotes from the likes of Aldous Huxley and Mark Twain.
With a nine-strong writing team behind it (including names such as Dylan Moran and Anthony Neilson), the show’s main problem is the surfeit of ideas inevitably produced by such a collaborative project, and directors Steve Marmion and Max Roberts at times struggle to steer their material; the end result too often feels unfocused and is overlong: a more brutal edit would have produced a leaner beast with far sharper teeth.
In a recent interview with Exeunt, one of the show’s contributors Thomas Ecclestone said the aim was to “create a piece of political theatre that wasn’t cynical or pessimistic” – and despite its unsparing look at the inevitable failure of Utopian systems (and the cost behind them), the piece does manage an optimism that is uplifting: the realisation that ‘utopia’ doesn’t come from grand schemes and big ideas (or even from Big Society), but from small gestures: an act of selflessness as a stranger sacrifices his freedom for others, the kindness and thoughtfulness of a nurse towards a vulnerable patient. In celebrating these tiny triumphs of humanity, we find personal, transient Utopias: the only kind that are real.