Jhe first glimpse of Alecky Blythe’s new play, Our Generation, comes via a trailer on YouTube, which seems fitting for a drama that aspires to take the pulse of today’s teens. It pours into the words of 12 youngsters from across the UK, whose comedic ups and downs have been meticulously recorded over five years, with every stumble and repeat intact. “I am an only child, there is only me, my mother, my cat, my dog and my deceased chicken”, explains a girl. Another worries: ‘I have a really itchy roof of my mouth. I think I have hay fever. I have to be 100% healthy to be able to watch Love Island. Yet another bubble: “I want to do hajj so badly. And Australia. I want to tan.
A Blythe play has become a bit of an event – since, weary of trying to find an agent, the Home Counties-born actress has turned to writing in an attempt to revive her career to the point dead. She specializes in verbatim pieces, created from taped interviews, applying the same listening skills to scenarios as varied as the London riots of 2011, a talent show in Stoke-on-Trent and a brothel for mature women in Bournemouth. “I got to a stage where I wasn’t getting a lot of acting work, and I fell in love with [writing verbatim plays], because, well, you couldn’t make it up,” she says. “As an actor, I found real joy in the fact that you could do roles that you might not normally do. It really opens up your range. And I found that I could do that.
For Our Generation, which opens at the National Theater in London this month, she and a team of other ‘collectors’ with voice recorders collected nearly 600 hours of testimonies from people interviewed in London, Birmingham, Northamptonshire, Anglesey, Glasgow and Belfast. They expect the play’s dramatic shape to follow that of the high school years, with its familiar milestones of passing or failing exams. But they were ambushed by the pandemic, with the fortuitous result that its 254 scenes reveal how a generation coped with prolonged stress.
Seven weeks into rehearsals, Blythe and director Daniel Evans rush into an interview room atop the National with the kind of adrenalized energy that comes from maintaining a rehearsal schedule on a road littered with the hues of positive Covid tests. The first three previews were canceled, and the 15-person cast only started rehearsing this morning without headphones. They don’t work from scripts but learn while copying the original speakers, straight into their ears, with Evans finding dramatic form while Blythe is ready to pounce every time they forget an “um” or fumble. an “err”. It sounds like a form of torture to me, but they insist that even actors who are terrified at first usually come to like it.
Perhaps surprisingly for someone connoisseur of those involuntary wrinkles in conversation that reveal so much, Blythe’s own speech is as crisp and smooth as a freshly ironed sheet, unfolding in eloquent paragraphs as Evans sits quietly at listening. There are two traditions of verbatim theatre: one, pioneered at Kilburn’s Tricycle Theater (now Kiln theatre) in London, uses pre-existing transcripts of trials or inquests. Blythe, working in a tradition initiated by American actress Anna Deavere Smith and British teacher/director Mark Wing-Davey, derives all her material from face-to-face interviews. When Blythe started writing, his plays were performed with headphones always on: the actors repeated, in real time, the spoken word that was transmitted directly into their ears.
His first play, created in 2003, focused on a 15-day police siege in Hackney, east London, which ended in the death of 32-year-old Jamaican mobster Eli Hall. Pushing her way to the front of a police cordon, she picked up her title – Come Out Eli – to the chanting of people thronging outside, some of whom she later interviewed. Some critics felt uncomfortable with how the method left its interviewees (“The technique of recreating the voices of witnesses often makes people – whether absurdly chic or hopelessly inarticulate – just plain stupid” , grumbled one). But many others acknowledged that she had found a new way to give voice to one of London’s most diverse communities. “That play ended up being pretty successful, and I got a literary agent on the back,” Blythe says. “So I went in another direction. And for a little while, I was writing them and playing them.
That changed with her brothel play, The Girlfriend Experience, which took place in 2008 at the Royal Court. “The style changed slightly in that I was sinking it more for the type, and I wasn’t really the right type for any of the parts. It was the first time I stepped back and was just the writer I really enjoyed it because I could engage with it a lot more.She did, however, return to the stage for Little Revolution, a snapshot of the 2011 London riots, in which she played herself in a dramatized chilling encounter. with a group of looters, who had spotted her taking pictures.The situation could have been dire but, after checking her camera for incriminating images, they let her go.
Our Generation marks Blythe’s first return to the National Theater since 2011, when she took her work to a new musical dimension with the award-winning London Road. It wasn’t until then-director Nicholas Hytner said he wouldn’t be producing a play with actors using headphones that she decided to drop them in the middle of rehearsals.
Dealing with the aftermath of a series of serial murders in the Ipswich area in the 2000s, this collaboration with composer Adam Cork was later turned into a film. It turned hesitations into surprisingly effective repetitive refrains: “Everyone is very, very nervous… UM… and very unsure of everything… BASICALLY.” The Guardian’s Michael Billington was among those who hailed London Road as fresh and revealing. “Conventional musicals, even at their best, take us into a world of fantasy,” he wrote. “This miraculously innovative show finds a new way to represent reality.”
Although Our Generation was not a musical, Evans was chosen to direct it due to his musicality. He is also artistic director of the Chichester Festival theatre, which has become a production partner, and will put on the show immediately after the NT. What piqued his interest? “Well, I’ve been in musicals and I’ve directed musicals,” he says, with an understatement that sends Blythe into a fit of laughter. As an actor, he is one of the UK’s most successful Sondheim scholars, winning Olives for his roles in Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park With George. As a director, he displayed a populist flair, with award-winning productions ranging from Oliver! and My Fair Lady at The Full Monty.
“And I’m Welsh,” he said. “I think the Welsh side is important. People always talk about the melody of our accent, so I grew up with an awareness of how I sound, and that took it to a whole new level. He’s particularly proud of some of the languages the two North Wales characters have come up with. “What, you mean the ‘My fingernails are longer than my future’ line?” asks Blythe. “Well, there’s that,” Evans replies, before flying off into a sentence so gloriously dirty it’s impossible to print. “It’s just the way language is savored subconsciously by people,” he says. “It’s very, very sensual, I think, without them even knowing they’re sensual.”
Their liveliness, Evans points out, is all the more impressive from a generation growing up after decades of cuts, meaning they wouldn’t get the chance he had, as a talented child actor from the valleys. from South Wales, to have music and drama. classes funded by the local community. “There’s a character near the end of the play,” he adds sadly, “who says, ‘We’ve been left in the rubble.'”
Blythe is acutely aware of her responsibilities to her young interviewees, who were all invited with their families to a teaser with the understanding that whatever they felt uncomfortable with would get the chop. “It’s really important to make sure we represent them as accurately as possible because they’ve been so generous that they’ve given us part of their lives,” she says.
This says a lot about the relationship developed between the interviewees and the collectors that only one interviewee left in the five years, even if some of them found themselves confronted with disappointments and traumas that they did not know. could never have anticipated. But all is not all difficulties. “There are others who are hugely successful in sports and in academia,” Evans points out.
“Plus, there’s romance,” adds Blythe. “You know, falling in love, falling in love. Sex. Yeah. Medications. Yes. What is remarkable about this group of people is that despite everything, they still have hope.