The best of all possible worlds... live on stage
At last, an evening of drama offering visions of a brighter future
Eight visions of "utopia", as eight short plays, sprung from eight very different pens. Opening at London's Soho Theatre this week, Utopia is written by a mix of playwrights, comedians and politicians – not that these disparate voices necessarily produce what you'd expect.
Among them is a four-page rant and a complete mini-play set on a spaceship – yet it's the former that's by one of the country's most prolific playwrights, Simon Stephens, while the latter is the first ever attempt at drama by Chi Onwurah, MP for Newcastle Central. Also searching for an ideal world are the comic Dylan Moran, and theatrical ones-to-watch Thomas Eccleshare and Janice Okoh.
Onwurah received an email inviting her to contribute after meeting Steve Marmion, artistic director of Soho Theatre and fellow director Max Roberts when they took A Walk on Part, an adaptation of Chris Mullin's Westminster diaries, to Newcastle's Live Theatre. (That play's writer, Michael Chaplin, has also written for Utopia).
"My initial reaction was 'What the...? No way'," Onwurah explains. But then she saw a chance to do something about her personal bugbear – the lack of "strong northern voices and stories" in the media and the arts.
"I hope people don't see it as a party political broadcast. The worst literary writers are those where you see their political purpose too clearly," she says. So what's her section about? "It's about social housing, which is incredibly important in Newcastle; it's the number one enquiry that constituents come to me with." So far, so political. "But it's also about identity, aliens, space travel and Big Brother..."
Quite the melting pot, then – as the whole evening inevitably will be, with all those competing voices (they've also thrown in writing by Shakespeare, Aldous Huxley and Hitler to fill the gaps). The cast of six is a mixed bag too, with comedian Rufus Hound and film actress Sophia Myles making their theatrical debuts.
Why utopia though? It's a reaction against the prevailing mood of modern theatre, Marmion explains. "There's a trend to write incredibly dystopic and quite bleak plays with a little chink of hope at the end. I started to think, well, what's the opposite? The complete reverse, in a time when we know the world's rubbish when we look out of the window?"
The imbalance of misery and hope on our stages is something Stephens acknowledges: "I've written some pretty bleak stories and I just wanted to redress that," he tells me. His Utopia piece is "a prediction of the beautiful future which we'll all inherit, pretty much defined by what one can see in the south terminal of Gatwick Airport... We're in a constant time of promised utopia: we can shop for Hugo Boss perfumes, or at World of Whiskies, 40-per-cent-off fragrances, everything we could need..."
I suggest there might be a note of cynicism here, but Stephens counters "I don't think it's cynicism, it's satire." Citing the recent research of psychologist Steven Pinker, he suggests we really do live in the best of times: "We're healthier, we've got more money, we're safer. We can fly to Tallin, Dublin, Milan – the world is so accessible, it's really moving. But, like a lot of people, I experience a tremendous sense of anxiety as well: that's the utopian contradiction I wanted to explore. We've got more than we've ever had, but we're more afraid of it too."
'Utopia', Soho Theatre, London W1 (sohotheatre.com) 20 June to 14 July
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