The arts sector is currently going through a period of self examination, as it tries to find itself in this era of austerity and shrinking funding that has coincided with other external pressures, such as the issues of censorship and boycott following events at Underbelly and the Tricycle and the closing of Exhibit B. All of those involved in ensuring the arts world remains challenging and creative sector of our society are battling with some big questions, and Walking The Tightrope has captured this with sublime humour and skill.
A series of 5 minute short plays, the piece holds a mirror up to the arts sector and the wider society and asks the audience to explore their beliefs and prejudices while being highly entertaining. The plays were written by big names and rising stars of the theatre world, including Carly Churchill, April De Angellis, Julia Pascall, Neil LaBute, Evan Placey, Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Solemnai, and each tears to the heart of the arts with individuality and panache. The whole experience was very much like listening to a high quality pop music compilation from the 80's, when music equally explored subjects of politics and ethics, with each play showing a writer at the top of their game challenging the audience to laugh as they are pulled firmly out of the comfort zones.
From the outset, the venue also took me back to those heady days of the 80's underground scene. Theatre Delicatessen is based in the old Guardian offices in Farringdon and resembles one of the old squats I sent many happy hours clubbing in back in my youth. However this sense of abandonment and dereliction is the perfect setting for Walking The Tightrope. The funniest element of the venue is that the entrance is still very smart, and from the outside it could still be the home of a corporate giant, but as you delve deeper into the building the veneer falls away until you enter the performance space. By this time all of the trappings of a modern office have disappeared to reveal the bare bones of the building, and that is what Walking The Tightrope aims to do with the arts.
The actors were superb. This is a short word but honestly, the way Naomi Ackie, Philip Arditti, Stephen Fewell, Becci Gemmell, Syrus Lowe, and Melissa Woodbridge change in both personality and stature in the seconds between the plays is a joy to behold. With little other than their talent up on the bare stage you believe every word and character to the core. As an actor myself I cannot understate the talent unleashed on to the stage at Walking The Tightrope. Acting at its best.
The plays scoot along exploring philanthropy and privilege, the motivation behind breaking boycotts, how the media spins everything in our modern world, how money corrupts even the simplest of day to day events, the exploitation of minorities and the distortion of history, how even youthful rebellion leads to tyranny, ethics in art, the politics of opposition, fluidity of identity, morality of money and how language shapes the way we see our world. As we riotously applauded the players at the curtain call, I felt uplifted that the theatre is using its art in such a creative way to stare into its heart and question its motivations. Bravo to producer Cressida Brown, her group Offstage Theatre and collaborates Theatre Uncut for bringing Walking The Tightrope to the stage. It truly entertains while challenging, and that is no mean feat!
The discussion that followed was not quiet so beguiling. It touched it's toes into many areas that are throwing the arts into disarray in the 21st Century but avoided really challenging the perceived correctness of successful creative. The key issue was that both panelists, David Lan of the Young Vic and one of the pieces writers April De Angellis gave their views on boycotts, artistic freedom and the darker side of funding but never really wanted to offend so a lot of the discussions kind of tailed off towards the end of each statement. However this did not distract from the night, and demonstrated that while the arts world wants to find a new direction in our modern world, it still has some soul searching to do. Its also a scary world where causing offense can have terrible consequences, so who can blame creative types from holding back on airing their views in the public realm.
The run ends on February 1st, so if you can get yourself along to a performance. There is nothing like witnessing intelligent theatre that takes you up on a tightrope without a safety net.
To book tickets click here.
Images by Camilla Greenwell - Cleared for use in this article