365 - One Night to Learn a Lifetime
This article is from 2008.
Lunchtime, and rehearsals for 365, the National Theatre of Scotland’s flagship production at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, look like ‘free time’ at a youth club. Some of the boys have organised a football game in the hallway and are jeering and daring each other on across an invisible line. Clusters of spindle-legged girls watch them from the stairs, giggling.
The official line is that the actors playing the teenagers leaving residential care homes, whose interlinked lives make up the meat of 365 are ‘mostly aged between 16 and 24’, but well over half of them have already graduated. I sit down with Helen Mallon, best known for her work in NTS flagship show The Wolves in the Walls, fiercely intelligent newcomer Simone James, brought up from London for this production, and Ashley Smith, whose expressionless, lovely features are currently slapped all over the publicity for the show. Possibly because I’ve half-convinced myself they’re all teenagers, I’m initially surprised at their articulacy and the depth of their knowledge. But then, they’ve been hired for it.
David Harrower, writing the play, turned up to first rehearsals with, as he will tell me later, ‘a world of research at my back and only a few pages of script,’ because director Vicky Featherstone purposely cast intelligent actors, who were also expected to do their own research and have been instrumental in creating their own characters and stories. The word actors, director and writer alike use most often to describe what they uncovered is ‘shocking’.
‘A lot of the background comes from direct sources,’ says Mallon. ‘We had this one talk from a social worker who worked with care leavers. Some of the things she told us! It really shocks you and it was difficult, at first, to believe that these things happen in our country. Coping with the realisation that these are real people’s stories that you’re dealing with: there’s a real weight to it.’
The ‘real people’s stories’ that have inspired 365 are those of young people who’ve spent their lives being passed between residential care homes, and who discover, on turning 16, that the care system can no longer make provision for them. ‘These are stories that happen in Britain on a daily basis,’ chimes in Smith. ‘A lot of the research we’ve done is about statistics, you know, how many kids are actually in care in Scotland alone, and what they have to face. And it should be a topical issue and it’s not. You hear bits and pieces – maybe in the newspaper – about kids in care, but it’s just not something that people want to give attention to. These kids, just battling to get through from one day to the next.’
‘We can’t deny the fact that mainly middle-class, white people go to the theatre,’ says James, ‘and these are the people who have the power to change things. If they’ve seen a piece of theatre that moves them, that might inspire them to go and make these children’s lives better, to give them a voice. It seems to me that there’s a big gap between the kids and the people who can make the changes. Social workers don’t have the power to do the things they want to do, because the people in the offices, the paper pushers, don’t have that direct connection with the children. Hopefully, we can bridge that gap so that the message they’re sending out isn’t diluted by people in the middle.’
The 14 stories played out on stage happen in what the play describes as a ‘practice flat’, the supposedly ‘safe space’ where care leavers are sent to learn how to ‘live’ in the real world. They’re all taught, at least, how to make cups of tea. ‘That was one of the images I started with, when I was thinking about how to turn the subject matter into a piece of theatre,’ says Featherstone, who freely admits that over the last couple of years, she’s become ‘obsessed’ with bringing these stories to wider notice. ‘A huge group of young people, standing on stage, looking up, each of them holding a cup of tea, because they’ve come through this system where we teach them how to make a cup of tea, but can they really live in the world? It is shocking, what you discover about the way these children have been forced to live their lives. And we expect them to become adults; we condemn them if they don’t turn into the kind of adults that we think they should be.’
The challenge for Featherstone and Harrower, once they’d uncovered these stories, was how to create art from them. ‘I think at one point the enormity of the research was in danger of paralysing us creatively,’ says Featherstone. ‘This is bigger than you can know and imagine. It’s not Boy A. It’s Boy A-Z! Getting the scale of it right was really important for me.’
Harrower shakes his head. ‘I thought, how do we imaginatively respond to this, and not make it a piece of didactic theatre? Your first impulse is, ‘Right, why the hell does no one know about this?’ As soon as you’ve got the information, you want to tell people. But actually, theatre’s got to be more than that. It’s got to burn, longer and slower. That’s what I hope this will do.’
Movement director Steven Hoggett, the man responsible for the slow, lyrical, wordless sequences that helped elevate former NTS Fringe hit Black Watch from docu-theatre to an imaginatively-conceived piece of art, shares a co-creator credit with Featherstone and Harrower on 365. Like Black Watch before it, there’s a real sense that this is a production deeply rooted in local issues, and, perhaps most strikingly, will play them out on the huge, grand, proscenium-arch stage of the Playhouse. This isn’t community theatre: this is the National Theatre of Scotland at the Edinburgh International Festival. And rather than importing in grandiose themes and texts by great, dead writers, this is national theatre that finds its art from within its own people.
‘That’s absolutely right,’ Featherstone says. ‘That is the national theatre that I wanted to run, when I took this job. It’s what keeps us dynamic and alive: telling the stories that need to be told, now, in this country.’
Playhouse, 473 2000, 22–25 Aug, 7.30pm, £10–£25.