The Young Vic’s raw and radical The New Tomorrow celebrates 50 years of revolutionary theatre
We are now at a flashpoint for UK theatre. The last few months have been a reckoning: with the paralysing effects of COVID, the protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and the political extremism that has surged around the world, the industry has reached a split in the road. The options now are to either strive for a return to a failed status quo, or to reshape the stage through the creation of a new, fairer artistic landscape. It’s a difficult conversation but one definitely worth having, and no one is better placed to facilitate it than the Young Vic.
When Frank Dunlop founded the venue in 1970, he did so with the intention of experimentation, of challenging the hegemonic norms deeply ingrained within the industry. Each production the Young Vic puts on is in some way revolutionary, be it through subject matter, practise, or purpose – this is a theatre that has succeeded because it has never been afraid of fresh ideas.
This September would’ve been the 50th anniversary of that mission and Kwame Kwei-Armah, the Young Vic’s artistic director, had a whole block party planned to celebrate: a festival of music, performance and community. And then the coronavirus hit. “Probably about three weeks into the national lockdown, we realised that no one knew what was happening and the rates of infection continued to rise”, reflected Kwei-Armah. “We knew then our original idea probably wouldn’t work, and we had to pivot to another plan”.
So, the Young Vic pivoted. They couldn’t have a full audience, a full production team, or even a full run, so the YV team sought to tackle this contemporary moment in a new way – by moving past it, and focusing on the days yet to come instead.
The premise is simple: fill the empty theatre by inviting a range of artists to compose pieces centred around the theme of “the new tomorrow”. Don’t look back at the past 50 years, but at the next 50 to come. No specifications of form or subject matter were given; the only brief was that these contributions should speak truthfully to the “tomorrow” the writers wanted to see. Over the course of two days, the Young Vic auditorium was filled again with music and words, performed to a Covid-secure audience of 79 in the theatre and thousands more at home watching via live-stream.
“Our first version of The New Tomorrow was going to take place on the Young Vic balcony”, explains Kwei-Armah. “We were going to invite people to assemble outside the theatre on The Cut to watch the performance. And then eventually, Covid permission developed and we were able to reformulate for an inside event. It evolved with the time, but we always knew there needed to be something live as part of our 50th celebrations”. And the result? Something truly special.
“We asked ourselves what the YV is right now – I currently see us as a thinktank,” Kwei-Armah clarifies. “It’s the plays, the work in the community, the work we do to demystify our industry. And we went to writers and artists we really love, and asked them to come and play in the space… and they said yes!”. Indeed, the pieces put forward in The New Tomorrow are radical in their outlook and imaginative in their delivery.
From the powerful Black Pain Redux by a Jasmine Lee-Jones, a raw interrogation of how it feels to be told “Black Lives Matter”; to the postmodern Antigone by Amy Ng, a prescient reconfiguring of that famous tragedy; to hilarious Emoji Tennis by Ruth Madeley & Jack Thorne, which takes a much-needed look at how disability and Zoom affect a person’s love life: the subject matter offered was as smart and diverse as the artists themselves.
Moreover, performing these fantastic pieces were a real cross-section of theatrical superstars. From industry stalwarts like Adjoa Andoh and Matthew Dunster, to up-and-comers like Paapa Essiedu and Ronkẹ Adékọluẹ́jọ; this wasn’t one generation lecturing another, but artists of all ages engaging in meaningful conversation.
Above else, it’s clear that The New Tomorrow is a mission statement for the years to come. “We know our job is to energise and catalyse, to debate and reflect what’s happening in the world,” asserts Kwei-Armah. “We need to keep being vital by putting voices that aren’t being heard centre stage”. Well, if The New Tomorrow is anything to go by, the next 50 years will be the Young Vic’s most vital yet.
Photos: Marc Brenner