For the last couple of months, the National Theatre of Scotland has been releasing three Scenes for Survival a week.
These short scenes were created by a ‘quarantine creative team’, consisting of a performer(s), a writer and a director, and were filmed by the performers from their personal spaces of isolation. Scenes for Survival thus joins the ranks of BBC series’ such as, Unprecedented or Talking Heads in showcasing how creatives have managed to negotiate lockdown restrictions and still create art. While Unprecedented and Talking Heads were respectively limited to five and twelve episodes, however, the full program of Scenes for Survival will consist of over forty films.
Unsurprisingly, then, the quality of these films vary greatly.
Of the twenty-seven films released so far, five include contributions by black creatives. This includes Disco With Mum, starring Saskia Ashdown (Lament for Sheku Bayoh, Lyceum Theatre; Clique, BBC); Birdie’s Dilemma, written by Apphia Campbell (Black Is The Color Of My Voice, Woke) and directed by Natalie Ibu (Artistic Director and CEO of tiata fahodzi); Joseph Knight, written by May Sumbwanyambe (winner of 2016 Alfred Fagon Award), directed by Justin Audibert (Artistic Director of Unicorn Theatre) and starring Patrick Martins (Roadkill, BBC); The Present, starring Moyo Akande (Two Noble Kinsmen, Macbeth, Shakespeare’s Globe) and Venusvirus, written by Luke Sutherland (Composer: Second Coming by debbie tucker green).
My ranking of these shorts – from least to most favourite – is as follows:
5. Birdie’s Dilemma
On paper I would have thought that a collaboration between Natalie Ibu and Apphia Campbell – whose show Woke at the Edinburgh Fringe left me sobbing but empowered as to the possibilities of black theatre – would have blown my mind. Unfortunately, quite the opposite happened.
Birdie’s Dilemma stars Tracy Wiles (Angerbird, Birmingham Rep) as a loyal employee who is betrayed when her company gives her a flimsy wooden plaque instead of the money she deserves when she retires. Her resultant anger causes her to fantasise about burning the company down; indeed, it becomes clear that her pyromaniac tendencies are long-standing.
In concept, then, this ten-minute exploration of a woman’s legitimate anger sounds fairly interesting. In execution, though, the piece felt overly dramatic to a point in which I found it difficult to connect with the anger or decisions made by the protagonist. It does make me wonder whether Apphia Campbell’s writing is best when, as in Black Is The Color Of My Voice and Woke, it is performed by herself.
An extract from the stage adaptation of Luke Sutherland’s novel, Venus as a Boy follows Cupid, played by Tam Dean Burn (River City, BBC), as his body slowly turns into solid gold and he breathes his last breath.
Filmed alone, lying on a plain white sheet, Venusvirus’s 7-minute monologue seems particularly relatable to those moments during lockdown where I’ve just been lying on my bed, contemplating my life and where it’s all heading – particularly resonant lines include ‘The trick is to understand why you are here? And what you are made for?’
Again, my main problem with this piece was the performance. Cupid could be an intensely relatable character, especially during lockdown with his isolation and thoughts on mortality, but I felt Burn’s performance lacked subtlety, distancing me from the piece’s protagonist. And when there’s only one actor, that proved to be quite detrimental.
3. Joseph Knight
Joseph Knight is an extract from May Sumbwanyambe’s new play Enough of Him. The play tells the remarkable true story of Joseph Knight, an African man brought to Scotland as a slave by plantation owner John Wedderburn to serve in his Perthshire mansion. While serving Wedderburn, Knight fell in love with Annie Thompson, another of Wedderburn’s servants who he married upon being recognised as a free man. Beyond shining a light on an important and often overlooked part of British history, this short is also notable for its impassioned performance by Patrick Martins and clever directorial choices by Justin Audibert.
The camera cuts between shots of Emma King, playing Annie Thompson, and Patrick Martins, playing Joseph Knight, lying on grass: the actors are physically apart in London and Dublin, but these shots make us believe that they are together. The soundscapes – waves, seagulls and constant musical underscore – also punctuate the piece, amplifying its contrasting themes of nostalgia, escapism and the traumatic memories of slavery.
2. Disco With Mum
Disco With Mum is a conversation between a mother, played by Julie Graham, and daughter, played by Saskia Ashdown, conducted via an online video call. The writing, directing and performances for this piece are all very well observed. At the beginning of the call, for example, the mother starts on a lengthy monologue reflecting on her deceased husband; meanwhile, the daughter, half-listening, dons some deely-poppers, feather bowers and ridiculous sunglasses.
Their conversation seems entirely natural: the mother’s fears of dying from COVID-19, and the daughter not wanting to hear it, dispersed amidst a discussion about the daughter’s own child and their plans to have a virtual disco. These themes of underlying fear, loneliness and the strange power of technology to connect us in these times are all beautifully depicted and memorialised in this 10-minute film.
- The Present
I was hard-pushed to find a favourite between Disco With Mum and The Present, but I eventually decided that Moyo Akande’s effortless performance of Stef Smith’s tenderly-constructed poetic lament deserved particular recognition.
Surrounded by piles of books and forgotten documents, Akande plays a young woman isolated alone, who reflects on a loved one that she hopes to be reunited with after lockdown. Akande’s desire to make productive use of lockdown – plans to exercise or tidy overflowing cupboards – felt intensely relatable. But there was also a poignant universalism to The Present: at the end of the monologue she finds a Christmas tree and describes how she wraps lights around it ‘for the missed hugs’, places tinsel with ‘the tenderness of touch’ she misses ‘so much’ and hangs an ornament ‘for everyone she loves’.
The Present reflects on the loneliness of the present moments, but also suggests that this loneliness reminds us to be thankful for the most precious gifts in our life: the people we love.
Beyond my critiques, however, Scenes for Survival should be recognised as a testament to the creativity of Scottish theatre-makers and their ability to keep making theatre in the current climate. Furthermore, the season of works acts as a platform to raise money for the new Scenes for Survival Hardship Fund, a fund for artists and theatre workers who have been hit hardest financially by the current crisis. At their best, they are short, sweet reflections on this strange event we are all currently living through, and remind us of the potential of theatre to process isolation and trauma.
All Scenes for Survival content is free and will continue to be available to viewers via the National Theatre of Scotland website over the coming months. Find out more here.