What would you do with 167 billion pounds?

[Script for a pitch to three venues, who are now giving me some space and stuff to make the show, which I will do if I get enough funding in, or if I don’t I’ll probably just delete this out of shame and regret.]

You could hire the entire of Bangladesh for a year based on its gdp, of half of Malaysia, or two Azerbaijans.

You could buy about 12.5 million five-door Nissan Micra Teknas.

Or you could buy enough weaponry to turn over a million people into blackened, smouldering husks.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 1

As it stands, none of these things have happened yet. As it stands, all are equally imaginary. They are not real.

In the brisk central european October of 2014, a band of architecture, civil engineering and urban planning students started laying down chunks of concrete and wood in the square of Karsplatz in Vienna. They called the city they made there Hypotopia, and it was planned down to the tiniest detail. They knew it had 102,574 inhabitants. They knew which buildings they lived in, even who lived on what floors. They knew where their waste was incinerated and recycled. They knew where the hospital, the schools and the cinemas were. There were no banks. And they knew the exact price tag of the city. 19 billion euros to a cent. The exact amount given from public funds to underwrite the Austrian Hypo bank’s outstanding loans since the financial crash of 2008. But of course, guarantees of liquidity to holding companies are not like regular money that you could spend on a city. They’re imaginary. They’re not real.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 2

Nuketown is a city built not on rock and roll, but on 167 billion pounds of imaginary money, a vast quantity of lego bricks and a collective imagining. Like Hypotopia, it will be made with the help of architecture, town planning and sociology experts, but unlike Hypotopia, it will be made with help from the public who are footing the bill for the alternative, the Trident programme of ballistic nuclear submarines which is planned to be renewed this year. In the planning, writing and rehearsal of the show, people will be allowed to drop in, help dream up an ideal part of the city that they’d like to see, then help build it with us, in an activity somewhere between art therapy, group protest and a massive fuckoff game of real life minecraft. Their stories and ideas will breathe life into the project, and give the city the strange collective identity that we know each of our hometowns has. They will inform the storytelling piece I create around the city, where a set of cameras on a live feed will follow individual citizens through the streets, charting their tiny tragedies and triumphs with an original musical score as they make their way across a town powered by the husks of the old Tridents subs buried under their soil, a ghostly remnant of an alternate world that could suck them back into it at any moment.

Dramatic tea-drinking pause 3. Build to crescendo 

Much more than big money and bigger bombs, its cities that fascinate me. When the people of chalcolithic West Asia started to congregate on the Barada river in around 6300BC, in modern day Damascus, they were just looking for a place to drink clean water, worship their gods and raise some cattle and or children. They didn’t know they were becoming part of the larger symbiotic creature of the city, one that would subsume their identities, their ideas and their boundaries into one great cybernetic mass, plant them a million miles from any river or field and fill their air with dust and adverts, scrabble the flesh of mountains into ever taller shrines to strange new idols: Cathedrals in the 12th century, Castles in the 15th century, Banks in the 21st. Cities offer the gift and the curse of namelessness. They are places in which we can be anything or nothing. They are places where any individual can leave their past behind and start again.

Dramatic tea drinking pause 4. Wind down to finale.

Nucleotopia is like that, but a bit different. It is a place where a whole country can start again. It is a place where art and life meet, where we say, but what if we actually, really, genuinely did something completely different? And if it gets bigger, more visible, more complex, that question could inch closer to an answer. But this is just a pitch to a consortium of theatre venues. It is imaginary. It’s not real. It is a non-place, which is what the greek word utopia etymologically means. But imaginary things are what I deal in, and I love them, so that is all I can offer you.


On Robots and Revolutions, Part 2

“All Revolutions are impossible until they become inevitable”

– Albie Sachs

Last year almost to the day I wrote a blog for Exeter’s Ignite festival in response to a beautiful image made by Patrick Cullum for the flyer. Now I have another one of his gorgeous illustrations to talk about, and this time I’m priveleged enough that it’s for my own show.

In December last year I was planning to give up writing and making theatre. A deeply depressing spell at three-week hyper-capitalist performing arts dystopia the Edinburgh Fringe had left me doubting my credentials as a performer, despite the odd encouraging review or enthused audience member. Work had dried up, funding applications went nowhere, the John Lewis advert was looping on youtube like a penguin-laden brainvirus. I was, sometimes literally, banging my head against a brick wall.

And this week I’ve been walking past the beautiful victorian buildings around Gandy Street to the Phoenix to go and make some theatre. I mention this not as a game-changing breaking news piece with a headline like “Privileged Hetero Cisgender White Man Makes Theatre Show After Thinking He Might Not” but because for me it is a personal example of the truth in the above quote.

It holds resonance on a wider level too. The Conservative Party’s net gain of a further 0.8% of the popular vote on May 7th had people on my social media timelines acting like we’d been invaded by swelling hordes of Nazi Zombie Ferrets. But my (admittedly amateurish) grasp of history seems to suggest Albie is more bang on about the nature of progressive social change than those who think the final nail has been laid in the coffin for the improvement of humanity. This for me is most true with the English. We hold deeply conservative and deeply revolutionary tendencies in an ever-tipping balance. We thought the King was a representative of God on Earth, until we chopped his head off. We thought the slave trade was super cool fun, until we led the charge in abolishing it. We thought the Labour movement was a bunch of leftie nutbags with just one MP, until they built the NHS and changed the country forever. Orwell described these conflicting tendencies with a warming mixture of admiration and disgust in his barnstorming 1940 essay laying out a revolutionary post-war vision for England, the Lion and the Unicorn:

“It will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons

    …It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as ‘a Christian country’. The Catholic Church will war against it, but the Nonconformist sects and the bulk of the Anglican Church will be able to come to terms with it. It will show a power of assimilating the past which will shock foreign observers and sometimes make them doubt whether any revolution has happened.”

Impossible until inevitable. Political theorists describe this limiting of perception as the Overton Window: the general perception of what level of change is possible sits on a fixed scale that is only a fraction of what really can be done, until, like some sort of surrealist cowboy builders have come through, that window shifts, and some serious shit does down. At risk of sounding wanky, this resonates with my creative process too – a problem seems like an insurmountable obstacle until a way around it suddenly pops up like those floor lights on planes.

That’s what Pat’s picture says to me. In this England there is still great beauty and great possibility, not just in the world of pretty pictures and whimsical plays, not just in Gandy Street or in the Lake District, but in our extraordinary, infuriating, idiotic geniuses of a people. So if you are doing something difficult, if you are looking for change, if you are banging your head against a wall, keep banging away. Together, there is no way that bricky fucker is staying up.

I’m currently putting the last touches on the show that the big robot picture’s for. You can see it at the Plymouth Fringe on Friday the 29th & Saturday the 30th of May, at the Bike Shed Theatre between Tuesday the 16th and Saturday the 20th of June, and lots of other places TBC.

On Robots and Revolutions, Part 1

Machines. We make them, we use them, we occasionally Rage Against them. They can help the sick and elderly  or drop a bomb in your chimney. All in all, they’re a mixed bunch.

My producer has told me to do a blog about the new show I’m making. Part of this process involves me coming up with an “elevator pitch”. This means the thing that you would say about your new project to some dreadfully important person who could change your career forever if you had them cornered in an elevator for thirty seconds. I’m guessing said important people take the stairs now. This is also thing I have to whip out when people ask me “what’s the show about?”.

I always struggle with these, because I tend to let a whole seraphic host of ideas bounce around in my head before throwing a trawler net over them and dragging them flapping and hosannah-ing into a few pages of writing. But here’s my shortlist.

  1. It’s about a man struggling to be a good father to a bright but quarrelsome girl.
  1. It’s about said girl struggling to understand a world of rules, restrictions and lost possibilities.
  1. It’s an epic steampunk fairtytale for grownups that will totally rock your socks off until the auditorium is just one big sock receptacle and the theatre staff look at me like “really, Jack, THIS AGAIN?”.
  1. It’s about machines. The little ones, like radios and bicycle wheels, the big ones, like battleships and factories, and the social and economic machine, the one we have created to bring us freedom and prosperity, but, like Frankenstein’s Monster, has turned on its makers to destroy their habitats and their happiness. I would call this machine Capitalism, as uncomfortable as that makes people at dinner parties who were just trying to ask what I’ve been up to.
  1. It’s about me. Isn’t everything writers write? It’s about my struggle to grow up and fit in with contemporary British society, and my obsession with fantasising about different worlds, molded by a bombardment of video games and sci-fi movies in my youth and hardened in the fires of global change.
  1. It’s Disney Pixar’s Up, but with robots and swearing.
  1. It’s about England. A country that for many is a proxy for far-right views, for others a source of post-imperial guilt and shame. For me, it is a story that we tell ourselves, one with elements of no small subtlety and frail beauty buried within it, a story we can use, if we choose, to arm ourselves against oppression and division rather than to perpetuate it.

One of those? Maybe? Or a mix of some or all of them? Basically, you should go see it.  There. Marketing absolutely NAILED. I’m off to the pub.

Grandad And The Machine is in development over April and May, before launching at venues across the UK. You can see performance dates here.