The Royal Court’s ambitious 2020 launch of seven editions of its Living Newspaper involving 92 writers and 90 actors engaging often provocatively with issues of the day generated numerous discussions about the theatre's history.
This in turn has prompted a further series of events entitled Living Archive Vol.1 in June and July 2022 looking at what has been remembered, what has been ignored or forgotten and who has access to this archive.
Social movements such as Black Lives Matter have made us more conscious of the way statues, museums, archives and the supposed canon have continued to shape our public memory, our private vulnerability and an unjust society.
Volume 1 of the Living Archive has been deliberately playful, questioning the canon, searching for lost voices that resulted in a public reading of the “feminist Jamaican play Under the Sun” by Sylvia Wynter which though acquired by the Royal Court in 1958 had never been produced. In re-balancing the way we look at archives, writers were commissioned, and rehearsed readings were performed. They included a verbatim piece entitled Gorillas, Floods and Pot Noodles: Life as a Stage Manager at the Royal Court derived from interviews with 26 stage managers working in the 1990s and 2022.
The historical archives are shaped by questions of power as Tash Brown illustrates in her play Lie. Stir. Repeat. about the supposed inventor of the hot chocolate drink Hans Sloan, whose name was given to the square in which the Royal Court is located.
A Cadbury World worker (Tash Brown) takes us through a rather sanitized version of Sloan the intrepid explorer travelling the world, filling museums with plants and objects. Finding some Jamaicans drinking cocoa and water which he thought tasted rather bitter, he asked for a sample. Adding sugar and milk he turned it into a delicious hot chocolate drink. “He made a fortune.”
The performer Tash then imagines a different history, a family story of how Sloan stole the drink from her enslaved Jamaican ancestors. But history is written by the winners, the powerful, so it is the first version that is remembered. No one got round to asking the slave's point of view. Perhaps those who wrote the history were too busy naming plants, animals, gardens, squares, avenues, streets and a school after Hans Sloan a man who earned a tidy sum from his investments in the trading of enslaved people.
Slaves are only one of many groups that are remembered in very limited ways. It can be disheartening if you happen to identify with such groups.
Zia Ahmed’s play Recovery Position gives us the reflections of someone at the Royal Court attending “the last session of unheard voices, an introduction to a playwriting group for Muslim writers.” The artistic director at the time pops in and reminds them that theatre is show business that has to have an eye for what sells, which in effect reminds them why they are still unheard.
We also hear about the writer's research and development work with a group of other South Asian heritage people at a big theatre down Waterloo where there were people from a similar ethnic working-class background in the kitchens but not on the main stage.
“We all got our scripts read. It felt like we had been steered in certain directions, war on terror, extremism, violence between communities, a certain kind of Muslim.”
The writer comments that “I’m a magician. I can turn invisible and hyper-invisible at the same time.”
The absence of various social groups from the stage can sometimes seem ludicrous. This is one of the observations made in conversations between two unnamed characters in Daniel York Loh’s play Porcelain Archive, or is Outnumbered By Goats a better title?
One of the characters says they have seen more goats than East Asians on stage in the theatre and that there have even been more goats on stage than East Asian writers at the venue. Their discussion centres on Chey Yew’s Porcelain a rare play featuring a Chinese person in which a lonely Chinese youth murders a white man in an East London toilet. Not exactly a positive image.
Inevitably, the narrow depiction of certain ethnic groups can cause distress. In a quite moving at times lyrical piece entitled Collect, Cumin, Coriander, Chardonnay, and Cashews, Joel Tan depicts a woman becoming upset and ashamed when sitting in an audience with white people watching an incredibly negative Chinese stereotype in Somerset Maugham’s The Letter which was performed at Wyndhams Theatre in 2007.
The Living Archive Vol 1 invited a different guest archivist to work on each event, organised round table discussions about archives with the Living Newspaper's design collective and recorded events with a view to them becoming available more generally in what they hope will be a more interactive archive.
Making the archive a relevant and useful part of the community rather than a dead weight on the living will be a continuing project for the Royal Court and hopefully an example other theatres will follow.