The lonely hearts club band
28 March 2018
Lily James unpacks how the theme of isolation emerges in this year's shows
I'm so lonely (so lonely)
I'm Mr. Lonely (Mr. Lonely)
I have nobody (I have nobody)
To call my own (to call my own) Akon, Mr. Lonely, 2005
For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life. Theresa May, January 2018
We are not alone, says Lights Over Tesco Carpark. We probably are though, a lot of the time, say Seeking Intimacy, and Hatch, Grounded, and The Last Five Years. And so on. Productions and conversations over the course of this week have dealt seriously in isolation and the challenges of building communities online and IRL. The governmental conversation over loneliness is mediated via gesture. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has resulted in the appointment of a Minister for Loneliness, Tracey Crouch. The rhetoric is cosy: in an interview with Dazed & Confused, Crouch says:
“Goldie Hawn did a speech recently in Dubai where she praised the UK government for appointing a minister on this and she was speaking at a conference on happiness. So you could equally say I'm a Minister for Happiness, ‘cause effectively that's what I'm trying to achieve.”
A Minister for Happiness! Goldie Hawn! But the statistics that accompany the commission focus around the economic and health effects of being alone: loneliness apparently costs British business £2.5 billion a year. It’s worse for your health than 15 cigarettes a day (like you chose it). Facts like this always remind me of being told that the Loch Ness is as deep as 19 Empire State Buildings, or 50 London buses: I can’t imagine it, and it tells me nothing about how it feels to swim in.
Lights Over Tesco Carpark achieves a synthesis of the systemic and the personal. Robert is at once a nuanced portrait of an intense, tender individual who leaves playing cards out for aliens, and an everyman, following the same patterns that are familiar to anyone who has had to build solo routines into their day: he shops for frozen pizzas, listens to podcasts, and some days, that’s it.
In their post-show panel, the cast discussed the disconnect between the university and town, and hinted at the idea that Facebook is an invaluable tool for building like-minded communities – just search "UFO+Oxford". The cast alluded to the ambiguity of this situation; specifically, the algorithms that turn our online forums into paranoiac echo chambers. Emily Davis’ wonderful review of the show draws parallels between Robert’s need to believe and our own desire as theatre-makers to build communities out of our collective fantasies. The image of thumbs over iPhone torches helped to connect all these dots: the harsh white glare of a phone light softened by our own bodies.
Seeking Intimacy tracked some of the same insecurities about building relationships. Are we interacting at all if we all feel the same way? Drink the same tea, read the same books? The show makes me think about how the expectations of dating are mediated by film, and that romance can risk turning our cities from communities into backdrops. An independent bookshop becomes a set, rather than a meeting point, because of their scarcity: “It wasn’t branded, it wasn’t Waterstones.”
British high streets are at a point of crisis: on the opening day of this festival, The Leicester Mercury reported that in the coming months they anticipate 12 closures of major chains in the city centre. How can these empty spaces be repurposed? Shop Front Theatre in Coventry, which started as a pop-up in a closed chip shop, suggests a way that we might start to build individualised, sustainable hubs among the closing New Looks, Maplins and Prezzos.
It doesn’t even have to be about “moving in” to a community, but repurposing space to support what’s already there: in the opening panel, Suba Das spoke about how his engagement stats at the Curve went “through the roof” just by providing rehearsal space for existing dancers and artists, who use the building’s huge windows as mirrors to watch themselves work in. Making work can be lonely too – the opportunity to do it outside your home, among like-minded makers, must be invaluable.
If a tree falls in a forest – no – if we make shows about grief, imprisonment, warfare, and only show them among our peers, do they make much noise? Community doesn’t have to mean everyone in your city, or even everyone in your street. The notion of what makes a show a “family show” has been raised in discussions, albeit briefly. I found myself wondering, in The Search for a Black-browed Albatross if this was a “family show” as well as a show about family. Family is not, of course, two scrubbed kids and their Boden-wearing parents, but graduates and their mums, our friends, just you and your younger brother – whatever.
Lucy Ellinson mentioned in the discussions that her experience working on A Midsummer Night’s Dream made her consider how traditional theatrical experiences can have greater impact on their communities than work we might consider to be more relevant and urgent. Last year Chris Thorpe said that Hidden was the kind of show he could take his mum to see. I feel the same about Albatross. Tackling isolation can start with reserving two tickets. But it’s larger than that, of course: we need to reject evasive promises of “happiness” in favour of making accessible spaces in which we can continue to make work that makes us feel less alien.
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca