revew: Thornton Wilder – Our Town
by Thornton Wilder/
dir Sarah Frankcom/
Royal Exchange Theatre/
In 1967, a bloke called Desmond Morris published The Naked Ape: A Zoologist’s Study of the Human Animal. The title largely gives away what it’s about – treating ‘humans as animals’ and analysing their behaviour through an ethological lens. I read it when I was about seven- or eighteen. Among other things, I do not trust the book’s use of science to legitimate dominant gender and sex roles or the itching sense that evolution has created us perfect. (who is us). The lens Morris reads ‘the human’ through is essentially cloudy and scuffed but from what I remember of it it’s an interesting read, even if you read it with cynicism.
In The Naked Ape, ‘humanity’ is subject to time, or rather has been. Millions of years have carried us into the bodies we have and the (’60s Britain) social relationships we have today (in the ’60s). The book is fifty years old now, and it feels a markedly 20th century text. I am projecting. The reason I spend 164 words writing about a book which didn’t feature in this production is to do with time and humanity. In 1938, a bloke called Thornton Wilder has his play Our Town put on over in America. At first glance the world of the play is trivial, provincial – a wistful and misty-eyed smile over white picket fences and some mythical lost innocence.
Don’t worry tho mate, the form does work – we are playing pretend. The stage is a load of bare tables, which maybe twenty odd audience members are sat at. Youssef Karkour is credited as playing ‘Stage Manager’, which entails him wandering about and announcing the movement of the show from one place to the other (this is modernism, after all). The effect of this form and design which does nothing to replicate any superficial aesthetic of early 1900s America is to keep the show on its toes. Take nothing for granted. Everyone’s wearing normal clothes – the performers are indistinguishable from the audience. They use their own accents and voices (and language, in the case of Nadia Nadarajah’s BSL).
Early in the first act, we are introduced to Professor Willard (Wyllie Longmore), who talks at length about the various seams of rock beneath the town. Suddenly, from talk of post and twins and schoolwork, we are introduced to geological time. Willard smilingly recounts how millions of years have produced the ground we walk on, the earth that will hold us up our entire lives, and last longer than anyone will ever remember. Willard is the first of the dead we meet in act three.
The events and lives of Our Town are not trivial by mistake. There is no great world event waiting to happen – the whole of the play takes place within a small town, is inward-looking. The lives of all involved are tiny are do not bear relation to anything bigger. The third act is death; the deceased of the town sit around and reflect on how totally, wholly unaware the living are. Of what is not addressed – does not need to be clarified amongst the dead. They all know and wholly understand the what, the absence, the nag at the back of living heads of which they speak.
In this third act, the audience are invited to imagine differently. The grave is quiet, and an open hoop. The stage is still bare. As the deceased Emily Webb (Norah Lopez Holden) relives her twelfth birthday, a table laden with snow, birthday presents, surrounded by sunflowers, falls from the ceiling. I am reminded of that Sarah Kane stage direction: ‘A sunflower bursts through the floor and grows above their heads’. In this tiny moment, crucially of Backwards-Looking, into an inaccessible past, we are given a full, bold visual sculpture of life. The slippery memory of life from beyond death momentarily grips something solid.
This is an example of a moment in which Our Town grabs our hand. Painful memory is not a new and private idea. The third act is about the dead, written by a man now dead, but at the time of writing, the author was amongst us living. There are ties, bleeding through the mundanity and futility – otherwise the play would be hard pressed to get anyone to care. Often these moments come from Youssef Karkour – whose whole performance feels a little like he’s catching my eye, thinking ‘isn’t this funny?’, ‘don’t people do daft things to each other?’ Warm.
Actually, at one point he does ask the audience to introduce themselves to their neighbour (which I don’t do during the show because I’m a stupid bloke but I manage with help in the interval). For much of the show, I can see my fellow audience members. The Royal Exchange’s main theatre (lunar landing pod) is lit from the outside and we are all bathed in a warm glow. It’s very important we can see each other’s faces, acknowledge that we are communally present. This whole series of mechanisms of familiarity, remind us of our relationships to each other, works wholly in complement to the presence of the obliterating immensity of time. Time is massive, but only because we are small, only because we are here.
Where The Naked Ape places humanity as the result of evolution, Wilder’s Our Town puts them in the middle of a social and geological hinterland – life stretches outwards in all directions, and so does an immense time that makes out small behaviours and the whys and hows and uses of them trivial.
It’s this year, 2017 where I’ve felt most at home in Manchester. Maybe that’s cos I’m under less financial pressure than I have been before, maybe it’s just a time thing and I’ve been here 30 months now so it’s all familiar. It’s also difficult to ignore the main reason Manchester has been in the news this year, the attack on 22 May, which already feels like history, already is ‘The Manchester Attack’. Mythologised. Sarah Frankcom’s Our Town does not address that. It is broader. I am suspicious of myself when I talk of breadth because it feels like I am nudging towards claims of ‘universality’. But this production feels, if not even citywide, then local. It feels communal. It feels a resolution, in a way that could only have happened here and now, of the immensity of time, the peculiarity of how we interact with each other. Our Town taken, localised, a view at time.