Under Us All

Gwilym Lawrence, based on research by Michael Richardson
Cap-a-Pie in association with the ESRC Festival of Social Science 2013
Customs House, South Shields

There is a whole range of theatre practice which uses theatre as a technique for exploring, illuminating or even improving aspects of life and society, what has become known as Applied Theatre. Theatre in Education and Augusto Boal’s Forum Theatre are the best known of these techniques, but there is also the use of theatre in prisons (Clean Break Theatre Company, for example), and there are companies which use theatre to examine and empower the lives of women, of which the best known to North East audiences is Open Clasp.

Now Cap-a-Pie has linked up with Newcastle University PhD student Michael Richardson to use theatre to share his research in Human Geography. The piece is based on interviews with three generations of men in the same Hebburn (Tyneside) Irish family – grandfather in his eighties, father in his late forties and son in his early twenties – in which they talk about their lives, education, work, class, interests, religion and Irishness. In short, it explores their sense of identity and how it changes over the generations.

The play is accompanied at each performance by a workshop which focuses on the particular interests of each individual audience, which have included, among other themes, genealogy.  The performances have been given in non-theatre spaces and in non-performance spaces within theatres, and admission was free.

Actor Gordon Poad plays all three men. The performance area is a traverse and features a table with three different chairs for each man, along with a few props, most notably the small Dictaphone-type machine which they use to record their comments. In other words, it’s verbatim theatre, theatre at a very basic level, the aim being to focus on the words. A simple change of chair signals a change of speaker and Poad relies on the individual cadences and rhythm of speech and on primarily age-related body language (in no way exaggerated or stereotypical) to identify each man.

There is no conflict and resolution and none of the events talked about are “dramatic”; their very ordinariness is what holds the audience’s attention. There are moments of humour, some wry, some subtle and some laugh-out-loud funny, but it is the retelling of the minutiae of everyday life across three generations which appeals, not least because it reflects to some extent the lives and experience of us all.

Peter Lathan