The six short films comprising Where Do We Go Next? were made by Bunker theatre to mark its closure, because of a proposed redevelopment of its south London site. Scripted by writers from under-represented groups, they were to have been screened at the venue before it went dark in order to offer both a creative stocktake on privilege in the ranks of the industry’s gatekeepers, and a look at the place of marginalised voices on stage. The films were released online instead.
In light of the Covid-19 shutdown of all theatres, the series seems especially pertinent in the central question it asks, which stands alongside interrogations of class, wealth, poverty and theatre-making. Cumulatively, the films become more than the sum of their parts and should inspire greater self-reflection by the industry during this enforced pause.
The films are pertinent in their hybridity, too: this is theatre made for the screen with actors performing monologues, sometimes with an unseen second voice. They are all directed and curated by Caitriona Shoobridge, and each artfully filmed with deliberate, pronounced camerawork, as if to remind us that we are watching a screen, not a stage, though there is a theatricality to each film nonetheless.
The first piece, The Feevs, has the greatest punch and eloquence. Written by Kat Woods, it is an exploration of poverty in the arts. Sophie Hill plays a young woman from Northern Ireland who works in a coffee shop and is “between houses” but aspires to enter the industry.
The camera hovers tightly around Hill’s face as she rages or panics at her lack of money and the class disparities of an industry whose upper echelons are filled with people with names like “Rufus and Nick”, but whose privileged practitioners insist on telling her that “arts jobs should go to the best candidate on the day”.
What begins as an overwrought monologue settles into a lyrical piece of work with a Beckettian intensity. Hill’s character is in a heightened state of anxiety, partly brought on by menstrual bleeding that she cannot staunch. She speaks harrowingly of having two periods in one month (“pints and pints of redness”) and how she cannot afford sanitary products. The subject matter touches on the “period poverty” campaign and Woods brings a visceral poetry to it. As she talks, a metronome ticks loudly and the sound distils both her sense of panic and anger at the clocking-in and out of work that her blue-collar life enforces on her creative passions.
There is humour in the series and the best of it comes in Fucked, a 16-minute film by Adam Hughes in which Jake Davies plays a writer in script development meetings with his producer (Sophie Steer). We never see the latter but she is the only one who speaks in this patronising monologue from plummy-voiced producer to working-class writer.
Steer speaks of the National Theatre as “the Nash” and objectifies the writer’s story of working-class experience so that a council house is turned into a “sink” estate and a father who drinks too much is bolted on to ramp up the play’s “authenticity”. There is some sharp and entertaining satire here, even if its message is heavy-handed. Davies’s wordless frustration is fantastically captured in mime.
Hangman, by Abraham Adeyemi, dramatises working-class experience in theatre as well while May I, Speak-er? by Nessah Muthy is an elliptical monologue spoken by a woman (Witney White) that is full of stops and starts to suggest repeated interruption by an establishment voice that we do not hear. Same Again, by Charley Miles, is a direct address about rural poverty and isolation.
The final piece, the monologue Keys, is another highlight. Written by Matilda Ibini, it is compellingly performed by Zainab Hasan as a kind of TED talk about the purpose and possibilities of theatre. It unifies themes of inequality and social change that hover across the series and is saturated with an earnestness that is so fitting – and moving – for our time. “What if I told you that the imagination is a real place, not a luxury or refuge from reality, but rather a place for survival?” says Hasan, who adds: “Theatre is a tool created to challenge the rigid structures of the establishment.”
It is a rousing end to a series that is unapologetically idealistic on the issue of where theatre goes next, once usual business is resumed.