Who are the grown-ups now?
If you’ve been thinking that our young people have lost interest in the Brexit gallimaufry you’ve not been listening, as we elders tend to do with young people. It’s just that they've gone past the anger at having their futures betrayed, past the incredulity at the behaviour of our leaders, and they're looking beyond. They’re looking at what’s happening in Spain, at Trump’s barely believable antics, at our home economy crumbling, at Europe’s bungling of the refugee crisis, at our government’s laughable attempts to appear to foreign negotiators and partners be in control, and looking at what god they can make of it.
The new young artistic director of The Gate, that tiny studio theatre that for more than 30 years has been a gateway to international theatre challenging the received truths and making careers, is a good representative. She has quickly developed a reputation for a sure hand, a clear eye and taste for risk, and there’s no doubt that the next few years at that Tardis of a playhouse will be at the very least interesting. Her name is Ellen McDougall.
All of those currently prevailing elements she believes are part of the same lurch to the right, certainly in Western politics. “It’s an idea about closing off from outsiders, and an idea about national identity and being afraid of others” she says. “We live in a culture that wants us to feel suspicious of people that don’t look like us. It’s all about shutting off, and I think it’s important to go ‘let’s break through that, let’s have conversations with people and let’s work together and make something together’”.
Making theatre is what she does, and so her programme for the next season is about exploring the female experience in society, about using imagination, about racial attitudes, about marriage. The theme for her is “truth”, not “received truth” or “alternative truth” but honesty. She wants to be “ripping off a plaster and saying let's look at all the ugly things happening under the surface”. We're in a fix, she says is her programme’s message. The world we live in is not working, it’s damaging us, it’s unequal, it’s destroying the planet, “but we can’t imagine another way of doing it”.
We should be talking about all this and we're not, which is where the arts, and in this case theatre, come in. The conversation is with the audience, and there’s another project coming up next month about a modern injustice. Inside Pussy Riot is being contrived by the peripatetic company Les Enfants Terribles, working with one of the Pussies in question, and will take its audience through the experience of the post punk Russian pop group two of whose members were jailed for sedition after a performance that lampooned Putin. It will happen in the Saatchi Gallery, there will be 40 or 50 performances a day for audiences of 14 or 15 at a time who will be expected to don costumes the better to get empathy for whichever way their empathy goes as a result.
This might seem desperate post-apocalyptic stuff of the kind that was an emblem of the 1930s, but it isn’t. “I want it to be joyful” Ellen McDougall says about her first season. “I want people to feel welcome and included and for it to be an uplifting experience”. She wants us to be relying on our imaginations “to feel quite radical in a world that feels dominated by pessimistic thoughts about the future”. These are the grown-ups now, in it’s not too late to be listening to them.