I always felt a strange duality of my personality. On the one hand, as a small untamed tomboy, I climbed trees, beat records in a 100 meter run, and constantly chased the football, ineptly imitating the legendary Pele kick. On the other hand, I was dreaming of the stage, a career of a dancer on Broadway, who like Velma Kelly from Chicago or Anita from West Side Story, conquers the hearts of men and shines in the spotlight. The combination is quite surprising, for some so antagonistic, that it is almost impossible … Not for me. The whole essence of my complex identity emerges from diversity, which gives my being an interesting, unique colour.
You probably wonder what has it all got to do with Brexit and the latest play by Middle Child Theatre? But it actually has, and quite a lot. Us Against Whatever, the play written by Maureen Lennon and directed by Paul Smith, is a unique combination of traditional, deeply rooted in European culture, form of a classic cabaret with typically English, pub-like football entertainment with a taste of a cold beer. This unusual hybrid seems to be a very interesting and ideally suited platform for the difficult political debate in contemporary England, the involvement of the multicultural Hull community and maintaining Middle Child’s spirit of the gig theatre.
The cabaret as a form of a theatrical performance, an interpretation of cultural and political satire, was primarily intended for entertainment. The etymology of the term comes from a French word cabaret, which literally means tavern, bar or little inn. In the past, wandering troubadours or comedians travelled from inn to inn, entertaining local guests with their songs and anti-political sketches. Over time, especially in the period of the Decadent movement, cabarets moved to cellars and smoky cafes, where they became an intimate revue of artistic and intellectual performances, spontaneous shows were engulfed deeper and deeper in the political agenda. With increasing censorship and governmental control, cabarets became a living newspaper commenting on contemporary events, a type of a critical reflection of the political, social and cultural situation of a particular country. This form is characterised by a small and cosy stage, close and often obstreperous contact with the audience, which in many cases joins in the dialogue with the actors. These elements are artfully incorporated into the script of Us Against Whatever. The leader of the performance is a master (or mistress!) of ceremonies aka MC, a musical narrator who takes the audience on a journey through every nook of the hearts and minds of the protagonists, revealing their deepest secrets. It establishes an intimate contact with the audience members, giving them a sense of a candid, face to face conversation.
Poles love cabarets! Since the nineteenth century and the first modern cabaret by Stanisław Przybyszewski, the Green Balloon, this form has become an indispensable part of Polish culture and a medium for political debate. In times of acute communist censorship, Polish cabarets took the form of resistance to the officially approved constitutional standards. Different cabaret groups from 60s and 70s have not only inscribed themselves permanently in Polish tradition, but in Poles’ cultural identity, giving it an ironic and extremely sarcastic character. Even today, Polish people enthusiastically watch modern cabaret groups, to just for a moment jump away from media propaganda, the government scuffle, and laugh at something that often makes them worry.
Us Against Whatever as a political cabaret with elements of karaoke, perfectly fits with the widely hated and often avoided topic of Britain’s departure from the European Union. The high form of the classical cabaret combined with the, deeply engraved in Hullensians’ devotion to Hull Tigers, creates a metaphor of the cultural and traditional eclecticism of our city. Many changes have taken place here over the last decades. Hull from a white, mainly British city resembling a city presented in the film This is England, has turned into a colourful, multicultural place, which unfortunately does not always know how to deal with its diversity. Brexit divided residents of Hull, like a sledgehammer smashed their unity. The introduction of a sport element into the story balances this gloomy governmental separation very well and exposes what is most important in life – people and their relationships. The moment when your favourite football team succeeds has a magical, unifying power. In this instant, even the enemies forget about their conflicts and celebrate together. The announcement day of the European referendum in Hull, which in 67.8% voted to leave, reminded me in some parts of the city of this magical moment of victory and unification. In spite of many unknowns surrounding Brexit, the process gave people faith in a better future, a belief in their voices to be heard and a feeling of a great triumph.
Us Against Whatever tells a story of two young girls, tangled up in a whirlwind of contemporary politics. Despite the small difference in age, and a huge cultural gap, there is something that unites them. Both seek relief, integration and acceptance. Anka, a university graduate with naively ambitious dreams, arrives to Hull to find her peaceful haven. Steph, with a deep-rooted lack of faith in her abilities, misses her father and seeks someone who would ‘understand’. From the moment they first met in one of the Hull pubs, during the legendary victory of Hull City at Wembley, an unspeakable bond was created between them; one that transcends culture and stereotypes. A purely human bond: without xenophobic prejudices or propaganda accretions. Anka and Steph’s relationship is a metaphorical representation of the theatrical form adopted by Middle Child. Both are like this hybrid, combination of cabaret and pub; musical and football. They are like a clash of two realities which, notwithstanding many differences, not only have to, but want to co-exist.
Cabaret gives this piece an extremely lofty tone: shiny costumes, bright makeup and amazing musical compositions by James Frewer with ironic, caricatural lyrics of Paul Smith, well balance the mundane reality. Like a fancy cocktail mixed with a bit of a footballer’s sweat. And as with my bizarre personality, this hybrid has its fascinating, mesmerizing colour.