Scuttlers – Royal Exchange (February 2015)


This will be a different blog entry. I suppose that all writing is about the author. This time, it is intentional. I was scared at the Royal Exchange theatre earlier this month and I want to write down why; to capture the emotional work I have undertaken in exploring my response to a play, to think about why injustice rails me.

Pre-Theatre Experience

It was Valentine’s night. I had booked two tickets for each show of the season at the Royal Exchange a few months ago as part of the season-ticket holder deal. I had not realised at the time of booking that this would mean a Valentine’s Night date, but it felt good to be going out. We had been housebound the previous weekend, because of a 9 year old with chicken pox. It felt romantic to have time, just the two of us.

We drove into Manchester, which always makes me feel slightly guilty, but it means that we can leave when the 16 year old sitter arrives and don’t have to hang around after the show, keeping her up later than necessary. The ecological guilt is coupled with an acknowledgement that despite it feeling like the most convenient way to travel, the constant road works in Manchester and the designed lack of parking mean it is not really any easier than the alternatives.

Guilt upon guilt. Two homeless men approach us for change. Sometimes, I give. Sometimes, I ask their stories. Sometimes, I shrug, as I did this night. Change was not readily available. I was angry. I have lived in Manchester a long time. I arrived in the late 1980s and was confronted by street homelessness and begging on a massive scale for the first time. I learnt to put my face into “I can’t see this” mask. I have also watched homelessness disappear and its reappearance is unnecessary, manufactured by unfeeling policy. I don’t want to relearn that face. It doesn’t have to be this way and I should not have to feel like part of a privileged elite because I can afford a night out at the theatre. However, it is currently seen as privileged cultural capital. (I recently completed one of those “which class are you?” type questionnaires. I filled it in with an acknowledgement of my trips to the theatre and was classified as “elite”. When I filled it out without the theatre visits I was part of the more comfortable, and probably more correct “established middle class”.)

The Theatre

I love the Royal Exchange. Its inventive architecture means a theatre experience that can be fully immersive. We took our seats on front row circle and below us the actors were already setting the scene. They were 19th century mill workers engaged in dull work. However, the most impressive element was the sound. There was a constant sound track somewhere between 1980s techno pop and the drudge of factory. It was loud and surrounded the audience. Against the predictable rhythm of a drum machine, there was also the occasional discordant, unexpected clang. To begin with these shocked, but it became a game to find out where they were coming from with small mechanical devices hidden all around the theatre.

The theatre was full. The atmosphere was warm. The stage quickly crowded with raggedly dressed 19th century young people. The cast was very young. (Remember, I am 46). The noise continued. It was quickly established that this was a claustrophobic community, which centred around pay day, alcohol and availability of work at the mill. Sleeping was a time of people upon people. There was no solitude. There were gangs with their codes of honour. I became aware that the plot was not important. I recognised it. This was Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, gang against gang with an unfortunate romantic overlap. What did matter was the atmosphere, the conditions, the available choices and I became scared.

The Interval Conversation

This is not an exact transcript, but the interval coffee went something like this:

Me: “I’m getting really tense. I know that blood is going to be shed. I can’t help feeling that if I were there, I wouldn’t survive.”

Partner: “Yes you would. Not as you are now, but fiery Rachel would be o.k.”

Fiery Rachel

fiery rachelThis comes from a man who knows me well. We have a friendship that goes back nearly 30 years and have been recognised as couple for most of those years. He remembers fiery Rachel. She still shows up in his life, but rarely outside of it. She is terrifying. She is temper and frustration. She gets her own way, but usually at a huge personal cost and leaves (emotional) casualties in her wake. She is not who I want to be, although I admire her spirit and passion. He knows her, because he knew me before my luck changed, when I was in a repetitive, dull job. I was shoving leaflets into envelopes for a theatre marketing department. I was better paid (slightly) than on the dole. It was a job that nearly broke me. It didn’t because I had the resources and the opportunity to take a risk, leave a job, return to education. Becoming Intellectual Rachel, relied not just on my intellect, but on the compassion of others, forgiveness, emotional and (just a little bit) of financial support. I remember clearly a visit to Tatton Park with friends on a sunny day, taking in the view across the lake and the warmth on my back and knowing that I was going to be o.k.

Scuttlers scared me, not just because of its overwhelming need to end in violence, but because there was no way to offer that compassion, forgiveness, emotional and financial support to its players. No way to give them the breathing space of Tatton Park.

Leaving the theatre, I had to walk past men in sleeping bags on the street. They could be me. They could be you. Sometimes, I still want to be Fiery Rachel to make that point.

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