Theatre Review: Cost of Living – A Swansea Grand Night out of Music, Theatre and Protest
Gemma June Howell
When I was offered the chance to attend the Swansea Grand Theatre for an evening centred around the cost of living crisis, I jumped at the chance. But it quickly became apparent that this wasn’t your ordinary theatre production, this was an eclectic, immersive experience which tackled the issue of the cost of living from a social, cultural and philosophical perspective.
Hosted by the National Theatre Wales in partnership with the Grand Ambition collective, the evening featured a unique structure with three interlinking segments: a relaxed panel discussion, an epic production of ‘Joseph K and the Cost of Living Crisis’ and a protest themed live gig with the lead singer urging the audience to ‘get up and let go of your rage.’
While the evening was both intellectually and emotionally stimulating, each part had a valuable role in discovering and dissecting the individual and collective repercussions of the cost of living crisis, which for many, has been a source of distress for years under Tory austerity.
The opening segment, ‘Counting the Cost of Living’ served to explore perspectives and broaden the debate to include the social and cultural, as well as economic cost of living.
Directed by Mathilde Lopez and curated by Journalist and Activist, Shirish Kulkarni in partnership with Ethnic Youth Support Team (EYST) and Grange Pavilion Youth Forum, ‘Counting the Cost of Living’ was presented like a reversed Question Time which flipped the tables, giving voice to those who are typically excluded, but are the most affected by our policy makers, leaders and decision-makers.
‘Rather than answering the questions,’ says Kulkarni, ‘these people [panel members] will instead be asking you: the audience. You get to explain your experiences of the cost-of-living crisis to the people and institutions who define our lives and let them know the daily price you pay.’
After a shared meal with the audience which included the performers, actors and those chosen for NTW’s Cost of Living residential programme, we were shown a film featuring the panel members from the discussion.
The film was a powerful way to solidify their lived experiences, highlighting the insidious yet pervasive presence of police brutality, islamophobia, and racism in Wales.
We then made our way to the theatre to watch the stage production of ‘Jo K and the Cost of Living,’ which I felt contextualised the previous segment. Written by Emily White and directed by Lorne Campbell, the play explores themes of justice, power and oppression.
A dystopian reimagining of Franz Kafka’s The Trial, the plot follows an ‘every-person’ (played by several characters) named Josef K., who wakes up one morning to find themselves under arrest for a crime that they know nothing about.
Despite their efforts to uncover the truth about their arrest and navigate the complex legal system, Josef K. finds themselves increasingly trapped in a bureaucratic machine designed to thwart their every move.
As the story unfolds, Josef K. becomes increasingly isolated, disillusioned and despairing, questioning not only their own innocence but the very nature of justice and truth.
After asking the wardens if he is to be sent to prison, they tell him to go about his day, ‘go back to work’ they say. Jo K. follows orders and is confronted by protesters, who we often see silently protesting on the other side of a window, and at one point one of them asks Jo to sign a petition, to which he replies: ‘I don’t have time for this nonsense, I’m too busy.’
Using Brechtian devices such as disruption and alienation, the audience is presented with the key message: within present society, ‘we are the state.’
One of The Stage’s 100 most influential people in British theatre Lorne Campbell, who is the NTW Artistic Director, says ‘Jo K. is subjected to the violence of the state but is also deeply complicit in its systems and oppressions.’
This is echoed by the ever-present jury, who don masks of Jo K towards the end of the play, telling us that we are all Jo K. and the power is in our hands.
Spirit of protest
The play takes the double nature of reality to new heights, using distanciation to make ‘the familiar strange and the strange familiar,’ blurring the boundaries between abstract oppositions; themes of freedom and bondage, guilt and innocence, public and private, accuser and accused, all of which define the unstable state of society we live in today.
The play’s exploration of power and oppression is particularly relevant, where issues of social justice and inequality continue to be pressing concerns. It is a dark, satirical exploration of intersecting power relations, false idols and the nature of truth and freedom, brilliantly executed by some of Wales’ most talented actors.
Completely enthralling, unnerving and challenging, ‘Joseph K and the Cost of Living’ is a timely and thought-provoking production that invites audiences to critically engage with these important issues and reconsider the role of justice and power.
Campbell says, ‘There’s definitely a spirit of protest in the air. After years of living with austerity then Covid-19, a relentless series of legislative attacks on the right to protest and to strike, rolling scandals of corruption and cronyism in the corridors of power, people are asking themselves: Where does this end? How do we organise? How do we resist? Am I part of this? What should I do?’
The evening then ends with live music from HM Morris and Minas who encourages the audience to and dance, shout and scream, asking ‘Are you ok UK?’
The host then came out into the audience, asking people to share their protest stories and chants. We all joined in and the evening reinforced a shared critical stance towards the social and political issues which have resulted in a cost of living for us all.
The ‘Cost of Living’ appeared at the Swansea Grand Theatre from the 18th-25th March. For more details contact The National Theatre Wales at nationaltheatrewales.org | @NTWtweets
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