In these times of uncertainty, as rising rents and soaring house prices mean even Britain’s professional classes struggle to afford shelter, the phrase ‘council estate’ has become demonised. Estates are characterised by the right-wing press as hot beds of crime, poverty and immorality; as depressing ghettos where miserable people in tracksuits scam the benefits system and smoke crack. Meanwhile, left-leaning activists and social commenters point to the desperate need for subsidised housing provision and occupy crumbling Brutalist buildings to protest the social cleansing of our capital city.
Although debates about the state of the social housing sector are essential, as they happen, life on estates across Britain goes on. And the creativity and dynamism that exists on these estates is largely ignored, in favour of politically polarised discourse, which only makes life on estates more difficult. On the Kensal House estate in Ladbroke Grove, London, SPID Theatre Company attempts to counter the poor reputation of council estates by making and producing films and theatre projects that celebrate estate life and explore the complexity of living in socially marginalised conditions.
Based in the community rooms of Kensal House, SPID produces professional performances and runs a youth theatre programme, attended by estate residents and locals. SPID’s work includes the plays Sixteen, The Passerby and iAM, all performed in the community rooms themselves, and the films Happy Slap and Affected: Greed is Contagious, which won a Young People Now award and was selected for the LA Femme festival in Hollywood.
SPID’s latest performance Arthur’s World, took the council estate to the attic space of the Bush Theatre. It was staged in an ‘immersive’ environment, meaning the audience were invited inside the fictional world of the play; character Arthur’s council estate flat. As Shelley McDonald, a youth theatre member who provided a voice-over for the performance told me, ‘the audience are literally part of the action, sat on furniture inside Arthur’s home.’
The immersive staging usefully prevents the performance serving simply as estate ‘voyeurism’ – where the audience watch the action from the safe distance of their seats. Instead they are inside the estate-world of the play, so that it becomes difficult to separate audience from performer.
‘I wanted to show that people have more in common than it might first appear,’ said Helena Thompson, the author of Arthur’s World and Artistic Director of SPID.
The play centres on Arthur (Paul Greenwood), an elderly white man who hides inside his flat, frightened by ‘The Fights’ – a series of riots sparked by a notorious video game – happening outside. He is waiting for his missing son, Mikey who is black, to return home, but when he opens the door, he finds white Keno (Joseph Tremain), a teenager seeking refuge from The Fights. As the play unfolds and Michael (Enyi Okoronkwo) returns, we begin to question whether the events happening are ‘real’ or part of a video game.
The play was a particular hit with the under-26s. ‘The Fights’ clearly reference the 2011 riots, and sparked debate among the youthful audience. ‘The riots are still relevant,’ one told me, ‘if you’re from this area, then you’re familiar with the riots; the problems that started them still exist today.’ This kind of comment evidences the power theatre can have to provoke difficult discussions and enable reflection on important social issues.
Anuli Changa, another young audience member I spoke to, was impressed by the questions the play raised about race and class identity (she has written a review of the play, which you can read here). ‘I’m a person of colour but I’m very privileged’, she told me, ‘and the play made me think about the connections between race and class difference – about how people do judge you on what you look like first and foremost.’
That questions are being raised about social injustice, race and class difference – at a point when wealth inequality in London threatens to divide already marginalised communities further – is important. We must have platforms where issues that affect young and disenfranchised people are debated. SPID’s work demonstrates the role art can play in facilitating difficult discussions. But perhaps more importantly, SPID offers a positive example of the creativity that exists on council estates – we need to hear more about the positive aspects of estate life if there is any chance of council estate communities surviving the social cleansing happening in London.
This post was first published at Huffington Post.