The Good Book
Slung Low / Leeds People's Theatre
This "future dystopia" from James Phillips, his third in collaboration with Slung Low, was conceived as a film, directed by Brett Chapman, rather than a live performance, unlike the other two pieces (The White Whale and Camelot), and was shot in January, long before before the lockdown began, so making it available online wasn't so difficult.
The "future Leeds" doesn't look much different from the current city, but it is in a country on the brink of a civil war between the followers of Queen Bear, whose picture looks down on the drinkers in the club at the start, and the radicals who follow Galahad. We are told in the prologue that the young woman Bear said she was "infused with the spirit of King Arthur" and that "we have to go forward to go back"—the language of repressive dictators such as Pol Pot and the authorities in Margaret Attwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Following that, there was a revolution and she became Queen Bear ten years ago, but now the rebels are threatening to break the peace.
The followers of both—the Bearists and the Galahadis—are intolerant of opinions that don't fit with their own, and the streets are patrolled by soldiers in modern battle fatigues but overlaid with white tabards featuring the red cross of St George. While they carry modern perspex riot shields, they seem to favour medieval swords over guns. The situation is documented by Avalon (Riana Duce)—she was Claire, "back then"—on her chunky mobile device in the form of short videos, which she sends to someone we don't see but whom she seems to trust.
Avalon has the number of a book, which looks like a Dewey Decimal number but seems to refer to a single book rather than a whole category. She breaks through the pickets outside the library who are demanding "purity"—which seems to mean destroying books that contain opinions with which they disagree—and gets the book, which then refers her to another number. She also meets Geraint (Angus Imrie), who used to be called Matt and claims to be one of the few people falling between the two sides in the conflict, but can she trust him as she trusts her unseen text correspondent? What is the mysterious "good book" and how will it help her?
The film looks great with high production values and solid performances, especially from the three professional actors—apart from those mentioned above, Katie Eldred is Avalon's staunch Bearish friend Vivian—but the story is a bit thin and doesn't entirely convince. Even by the end of this half-hour film, I couldn't confidently answer the questions above or really understand why a lot of things are the way they are in this world.
We've seen such dystopic worlds slightly removed from our own on our screens a lot recently, from Handmaid's Tale to the radically altered TV version of Malorie Blackman's Noughts and Crosses, but this doesn't convince in the same way. Perhaps it would have been different if I'd seen the two previous pieces set in this world, or if this was an immersive theatre piece happening all around me on the streets of Leeds.
However, as the inaugural production of the new Leeds People's Theatre with a mostly non-professional cast, it is a technically impressive piece of filmmaking that raises a few interesting political questions, even if it doesn't deal with them with as much clarity or depth as it might.
Reviewer: David Chadderton