Notes from the Rehearsal Room: In Defence of Rage

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks.

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I think rage is my favourite emotion, despite its bad reputation. There is something thrilling about the clarity of it — its power. I like how it appears suddenly, like the tarry, turquoise sheen on the surface of crude oil; its liability to catch the light and cast a rainbow.

The scholar Tiffany Watt Smith, in her beautiful compendium, The Book of Human Emotions, writes that rage is increasingly unacceptable in contemporary culture, particularly in Britain and America where expressing rage is often equated with succumbing to explosive and irrational anger. She points to political theorist Hannah Arendt’s work (On Violence) to suggest that rage is, in fact, not irrational at all, but most often a response to conditions of injustice that could be changed, but are not. ‘Only when our sense of justice is offended’, writes Arendt, ‘do we act with rage.’

In many ways, High Rise Estate of Mind is borne of rage — not only because it explores conditions of contemporary injustice in London’s housing market, but because of the qualities it embodies in its presentation. The language of rage runs through the piece, evident in both the carefully crafted metaphors that create the fictional world, and in the performers’ ‘real world’ stories of their own housing experiences. The confrontational nature of the performance, with the cast standing stark, a few feet away from the audience, on a mostly bare stage (transparent plastic chairs, coloured shafts of light and musical equipment the only scenographic interventions), delivering lines that outline the brutality of capitalism, feels angry, but necessarily so.

The performance also draws on a semiotics of urban rage, often denigrated and misunderstood in the popular press and cultural commentary. They wear black hooded tracksuits, with red armbands and baseball caps — a nod to the so-called street culture associated with council estates, gangs and urban poverty, challenging what it means to be on the edges of society by weaving complex poetry, dressed in the uniform of the reviled other. Their musical influences, in hip hop and grime, draw on a tradition of cultural politics that is often mistaken for mindless violence. So too their choreographed movements are sharp and often aggressive: jabs and punches that spar with the audience, transmitting how it feels to be bound in a social and economic strata that often leaves you fighting for your very existence.

In rehearsals there is no sense of aggression, but anger does simmer under the surface of our conversations. We reflect on how injustice can produce rage, reminiscing about our relationships to the riots that broke out across London in 2011. The riots were a response to the killing of Mark Duggan by police — but were also symptomatic of a (then recently implemented) culture of austerity, in which any sense of a social safety net was stripped away by cuts to welfare benefits and local provision of services. We all sympathise with the rioters — portrayed as irrational, feral criminals by politicians and the tabloid press — and discuss how our initial emotional reaction to the riots was a sense of solidarity in rage: we wanted to (but didn’t) join the rioters in demonstrating our violent opposition to the actions of the state.

Conrad Murray and Paul Cree, who make up the company Beats & Elements (and who are half the cast of High Rise), have described the aesthetic of their previous projects as ‘council estate rage’. A statement that suggests the way class, space and the wider inequalities of our social system can produce particular tenors of emotion. In my book, Social Housing in Performance, I trace the ways this particular iteration of working-class anger has been misunderstood, arguing that council estate rage articulates an ‘insider perspective’. A perspective ‘where [the] presentation of what might seem “anti-social” by middle-class moral standards is revealed as a glass-shield that barely conceals the core of discontentment, fear and pain that often characterizes the working-class lived experience’. In High Rise, the company channel this council estate rage aesthetic again, creating a work that is transparent, yet uncomfortable at moments, and difficult to digest.

Being in the rehearsal room reminded me of the complexity of rage and its potency. People who have ready access the so-called negative range of emotions — anger, bitterness, spite, jealousy — are the people I want to be around. Not because I find that relentless wallowing in negativity is enjoyable — but because of what ready access to the full human emotional spectrum can create. There is political potential in those less pleasant emotions, but there’s something else too. We often think that rage is closest to hate in the order of things; that indulging rage breeds intolerance and misery. I don’t find that to be true. Expressing rage — articulating just rage through art, and violence when necessary — is the only way to survive injustice and remain intact. Rage is not only hatred — it is wit and precision and the sharp end of the arrow that might pierce something vital. Rage is necessary for joy.

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Notes from the Rehearsal Room: Marginal Energy

 

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks.

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Because I write a lot about people, places and artworks often presented in negative terms in the newspaper press, I often find myself reaching for the term ‘marginalised’. It’s a word I feel uneasy about, because of how it can congeal on the page, clumsy and inaccurate. The things I’m interested in aren’t marginal to me: they do not appear on the edge of the frame of my consciousness, or in some unfocused periphery of the world I inhabit — most everyone I knew growing up lived or had at some point lived in council housing; most everyone  was working class. The area of London where I lived for my formative years was racially mixed, so that you didn’t think of people of colour as ‘other’, they just were, like everybody else (which isn’t to deny the reality of racism in South East London, rather it highlights how, in the place I live now, people of colour most definitely are not, an absence that is acute and dangerous, casting anybody who is not white as excessively visible, and especially vulnerable).

Describing the worlds that I write about as marginal also belies the commercial reality of the contemporary culture, where the so-called ‘marginalised’ are big money. The fact is that the fetishisation of estates and their residents is ubiquitous on television and elsewhere. The fact is that urban performance forms like hip hop and grime, emerging from predominately black working class communities, are some of our most popular, widely played and well-known genres. And still…

When I hesitate to type the word ‘marginalised’ I return again and again to bell hooks’ argument for the power of the margin as a radical space of resistance (1989). hooks reminds us of the dangers of pessimism about marginality, ‘if we only view the margin as a sign, marking the condition of our pain and deprivation’ she writes, ‘then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way’ (hooks 1989, 21). For hooks, to stay located at the margins when there is a possibility of moving towards the centre is a radical choice; she makes a ‘definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility’ (23). I choose to think about the margins and the marginalised conditions that I write about in the spirit of this distinction.

Here I am in the Battersea Arts Centre, and in the studio in front of me the performers (who, I point out again, have developed this work over two and half years, mostly unpaid) break out of the carefully crafted fictional world in which High Rise Estate of Mind takes place, turning off the intoxicating  score that envelops us in the stage reality to address the (at the moment — because this is a rehearsal — imaginary) audience with only the sound of the lights vibrating behind them, and the truth of their stories, told in their own words. This is where it gets real.

‘I didn’t know if the world outside knew that people on the estate existed’, Conrad Murray says, dropping his character to give us a frank housing autobiography, returning to the margins to speak from his experience there.

The performance is punctuated like this throughout, the satirical, fictional ‘City Heights’ apartment complex, where residents must compete in a social contest comprising of hard work and ruthless ambition to ascend to the top, is continually fractured by the real life stories of the actors. At points it isn’t clear where the satire of the UK’s housing crisis ends and the injustices of our social world starts.

Is the dystopia of Mark 1 really so unbelievable, in a world where, as Lakeisha Lynch Stevens narrates in a story of her own childhood, children play in parks covered with needles and used condoms, shaping their own self-worth in the debris left behind by a city that doesn’t see them?

This is marginality, surely? Not just the stories on stage, but the form they take, the spirit that produces them — joyful and heartbreaking in a dynamic, dialectical swirl. Urgent, and yet, not produced for reams of cash in the West End, or for broadcast, but at an experimental arts centre on the edge of the city where Clapham turns into Battersea, for a festival celebrating ‘underrepresented’ voices. You can’t have it, the form is saying, this is ours. If the word marginality does anything, it is provide a frame that describes the ways in which your own existence, and its denial by the material or structural powers that be, creates conditions that produce the energy to resist, to make, to bask in pleasure even in the midst of hardship and pain. The margin is a catalyst, as well as a circumstance.

The music starts again, a frantic vocal whine underscored by a beat laid down live on stage as the performers begin to rap over the instrumentals, dancing, laughing, weaving complex lyrical imagery, enjoying the work they’ve made as much as they hope its audiences eventually will.

A work like High Rise, complex and frenetic; fragmented and challenging, could not have been created — at least not in its current form — without the pressure exerted by the margin pushing itself against the centre. It’s testament to the human instincts for expression, solidarity and justice denied by our collapsing political and economic system. That’s not to fetishise poverty and hardship, having no money and struggling to find a place to live is only ever shit. But the margin continues to create in spite of, because of.

You can’t escape the margin, it’s what encircles the centre.