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‘Joy matters’: UK theatre festival tackles hard-hitting issues with a sense of fun

·3 min read

A sense of joy and playfulness is vital for theatre’s future, even when playwrights are grappling with some of the hardest-hitting issues of our age, according to the organiser of a new festival that takes place this weekend.

Suba Das, the artistic director and CEO of HighTide, said that the six plays showcased at the company’s Inventing the Future festival at the New Wolsey in Ipswich all “take on challenging issues with a sense of joy”.

The festival features readings of new scripts by writers that HighTide has supported throughout the pandemic. Das will direct a reading of OCO-2, a play by Nicole Latchana about fertility and the climate emergency, in which a doctor has created a radical population control policy to restore Earth’s optimal temperature. “There is no bleaker topic than the climate crisis,” said Das, “but OCO-2 is candidly hilarious.”

Other plays in the festival tackle racism in football (Zidane of the Ends by Zain Dada), domestic abuse (End Cubicle by Kat Rose-Martin) and the radicalisation of young working-class men (Bump by Kelly Jones). There is an element of protest within all of the plays, said Das, “but the best protest songs have the catchiest tunes”. The scripts duly interrogate these and other issues with wit and a sense of inquisitiveness.

They have been written across a range of scales, said Das. “Wake Up People [John Webber’s play about conspiracy theories] has a massive, onstage chorus, while End Cubicle and Bump are monologues.” Kabul Goes Pop: Music Television Afghanistan by Waleed Akhtar explores what happened to the presenters of Afghanistan’s first music channel. It features “Britney, Shakira, a lot of zaniness and zippy energy,” while exploring “how young people were affected by the Taliban insurgency from 2001”. Although the festival was programmed several months ago, it has proved disquietingly resonant since the fall of Kabul this summer.

A great playwright, believes Das, will ask questions that audiences may shy away from. “We’ve got to protect our writers,” he added. “Always, in all societies.” Das has also shown a commitment to creating safer spaces in rehearsals, and during the pandemic HighTide led the creation of an Anti-Racism Touring Rider, giving guidelines to ensure more equitable working conditions for touring theatre productions. “We are creating safer, easier more comfortable spaces for artists of colour when we require them to be out on the road.”

More than 18 months after venues first closed because of the pandemic, there remains “a real fear and nervousness” in the industry, said Das. But in the theatre world, and beyond, Das stressed that: “Joy matters. What’s required of us as a society moving forwards is a spirit of collaboration. That tends to exist when you’re also having a bit of a laugh. It’s called a ‘play’ for a reason.” When presenting a script that addresses serious subject matter or is based on real life, there is a duty to take care, do your research and respect the material, he added, “but in terms of the rehearsal rooms I like to build, they are spaces of joy because that’s how you make people comfortable enough to make their best work”.

• HighTide’s Inventing the Future festival is at the New Wolsey, Ipswich, 22–24 October and will be available online in November.

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