revew: Marieke Hardy – No Pay? No Way!
No Pay? No Way!/
by Dario Fo & Franca Rame/
new version by Marieke Hardy/
dir Bryony Shanahan/
design Cecile Tremolieres/
composer/sound Russell Ditchfield/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
12 May – 10 Jun 20213//
Sympathetic to revolution
What use will the Royal Exchange Theatre be in the revolution?
The entrance stairs provide defensible space. They’re the main access point, but important to be mindful of the others – a few doors we can stick bike locks on and stairwells we will need to fill with obstacles. Important to seal off the cellars which connect to neighbouring businesses (although the same cellar could prove a useful foxhole in a pinch). And the wall which bisects the original trading hall is a bit of a worry; how thick is it? How easily could it be penetrated from the offices next door? Never assume that wall is entirely safe.
A big advantage of the main hall, though, is that tear gas would be all but useless in anything but tremendous quantities. All that volume will be practically impossible to fill. Clear sight lines from the mezzanine gallery to street level, too, and with natural light from the domes and those windows we have the advantage of it being easy to look outside and difficult to look in. Lots of furniture to create barricades and obstacles in the stairs and the glass in the doors there is pretty thick, probably difficult to penetrate possibly bulletproof, up to a point.
Once we’re in and secure, the building has showers, beds, multiple rooms, running water and at least one oven and a stocked kitchen in the green room. We could survive here comfortably for some time, even if there’s a large number of us. No idea how well stocked the kitchen is, though, so best to factor in a raid of the Sainsbury’s next door – or even the M&S and Tesco nearby. That cellar could be a useful asset if we end up having to make surreptitious food runs, but assume once we’re in we’re likely not getting back out for a long time.
Even if the building is breached, there are plenty of places to hide. We should have plenty of time to black out the internal windows and give ourselves strategic holes and cracks to spy through (and there’s bound to be black paint somewhere in the building). Beyond the main hall, the backstage has three floors of relatively narrow corridors, which means it’ll be difficult to mount an assault on us in large numbers, and again, they’ll be easy to barricade (and/or plant traps). As a very last resort we may be able to escape into the building the other side of that wall splitting the trading hall. We should investigate this contingency ASAP.
Even if we die, I expect we’ll give the bastards a run for their money.
There is contraband – stolen food – hidden in the rafters. Antonia and Margherita are doing their best to divert the cops’ attention and protect themselves, when one cop finds a red rope, dangling in the centre of the room and pulls on it. Rice spills from the ceiling, scattering everywhere. The plan has failed, and the women make a getaway. Sirens, running. Rice everywhere. A couple of stage crew come on to sweep the rice out of the way. The crew have been part of the production already; earlier, we were told one of them was on strike – they marched across the stage with a placard – and so the pyrotechnics, full-size van, and onstage travelator have been scaled down in response. The production is already playing with our expectations of the technical crew’s role in the action and so their presence is not an interruption. Except the plan has really failed. One of the crew tugs on the rope a few times. It refuses to give way. The plan has really failed. The actors are halted mid-scene and ushered into the wings. Rice everywhere.
At this point my date and I are sympathetic to assuming this is a planned part of the proceedings. Only the time it took to fix the rope, a crew member clambering in the rafters of the theatre, convinced us it was unplanned. But even then it was a close-run thing.
Here’s a suggestion: a good piece of theatre is resilient to change. Core to the experience of theatre is its liveness, we hear. ‘Did you know that theatre audiences’ hearts beat in sync with each other during performances?’ – I have been told this more than once and god yes of course it’s a magical metaphor – theatre is a machine for exercising empathy, a tool for reminding us of the distance between each other. Theatre binds our fucking hearts together, fucking hell(!!). Here’s another way of phrasing the idea: a good piece of theatre assumes a revolutionary mindset. You may write a piece of theatre, you may direct it, you may perform it and it may be a perfectly synchronised technical miracle BUT you are not in control of it. Sorry. You’ve picked the wrong medium if you want control; the audience are going to take hold of your work, grip it in their teeth, shake it in their teeth until it’s theirs. In a good way.
‘Resilient to change’ is definitely wrong, actually – it implies resistance, that change is a force which acts against the work when, actually: a good piece of theatre anticipates change. Or, no: a good piece of theatre is change. A quote I have heard attributed to Pina Bausch: ‘Meaning comes from disrupting the pattern.’
Imagine sitting through a piece of theatre and emerging unchanged out the other side. Imagine art which failed to add to our experience of life. When I started my evening, I had fewer thoughts about ropes. And here’s the good part – the piece of theatre is changed by the audience too! When the show Went Wrong, it in fact Carried On, and everything was fine because the audience willed it to be so, and the misbehaving rope became PART OF the evening and actually, MY FAVOURITE PART. Oh sure I liked the scheduled proceedings a lot but the rope proved something to me about WHY we’re all sitting in these rooms together.
Now, the revolution? The revolution doesn’t go according to plan, and it relies on the collective will of its members to succeed. Which in the case of this metaphor is how theatre and live audiences work together. If there is a watertight plan, there is no revolution. Revolting, like theatre, relies on improvisation.
Have you learned your lesson?
Ryszard Kapuściński: ‘A crowd… reduces the individuality of the person… The forms through which a crowd can express its yearnings are extraordinarily meagre and continually repeat themselves: the demonstration, the strike, the rally, the barricades.’ The theatre audience, too, is a chorus of reduced persons. We each have a Seat Which Belongs To Us. We each (on the whole) do not want to interrupt the performance, but are happy to grant our laughter, our applause, sporadic (sanctioned) jeering.
What then is the point of all this theatre? Where do we go, how do we change when we sit down and become the audience for, for example, No Pay? No Way! at the Royal Exchange? The question I’m really thinking about is are we here to learn anything? Do we expect the theatre to challenge us or educate us or reshape us in some way? Yes, but not really? When we transform into the audience and then back again do we retain a trace of the collective, or was the spirit of the audience always inside of us, dormant, waiting to be summoned?
I find I easier to imagine a play changing someone else’s mind rather than my own.
In the same passage as above, Kapuściński adds, ‘If the crowd disperses, goes home, does not reassemble, we say that the revolution is over.’ SO TOO WITH THE THEATRE. When the audience is dispersed, the theatre is over. When we no longer make audiences, we will no longer make theatre. But of course that doesn’t preclude us making something new.
No Pay? No Way! is sympathetic to revolution. The inciting event in the supermarket, scores of women refusing to pay for their overpriced groceries, is a moment of revolution which springs, unplanned, unbidden, from the weary spiritus mundi. The revolution is inevitable and it summons itself when material conditions are untenable. The play’s heroes, most notably Antonia and Margherita, are indisputably revolutionaries. Crucially, they likely did not see themselves as revolutionaries until the revolution began. Antonia’s husband Giovanni is a chump – he is constantly narrowly missing the point, the epitome of extremely wrong but incredibly close. He has an ideological aversion to theft when we encounter him, misunderstanding the ur-theft which is taking place when he works all day at a factory making food, only to be paid barely enough money to keep himself alive.
No Pay? No Way! is sympathetic to revolution because its revolution is just and is carried forward by the protagonists as the play ends. Tonight is only the beginning.
Now, is ‘sympathetic to revolution’ enough? Well of course it isn’t enough! Anything short of ACTUAL revolution isn’t ‘enough’! What do I want from theatre? Well, for one thing I want to have a fucking nice time sometimes and I want at LEAST (here it is, the lowest fucking bar) to see pieces of theatre which would be disturbing to fascists. And so ‘sympathetic to revolution’ does that work, tonight, for me.
I do believe – on a deep level, not just a story I am telling myself – I do believe that theatre, art, is necessary. Necessary but far, far from sufficient. We will make the world better and we will make the world better while making art.
I don’t want the Royal Exchange to contribute to the revolution in any meaningful way. I don’t think any post-revolutionary future includes the Royal Exchange in its current form anyway – if I am imagining the revolution, I am imagining the world made entirely anew. There are many things which will die in the coming of the world after this one. But if the revolution has the Exchange’s sympathy, perhaps one day we can make use of its bones.