Brighton Fringe 2015
The Daily Tribunal is full of crap.
Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap
filling the stage at The Dukebox – all the crap, all the lies about homeless people, that we’re given every day in the newspapers.
The Daily Tribunal is a play about homelessness. But as the programme states –
‘Fair warning from the go; this piece is devised and just like those who devised it, sometimes it just doesn’t try to be understood’
They’re not kidding. This is a nightmare trip into the world of the homeless – a kaleidoscope of impressions that manages to bring us face to face with the people we normally manage to avoid eye contact with. It’s also about society’s response, and the constant demonisation of homeless people in the press.
I’d seen Alexander John and Samuel Nunes de Souza doing three Pinter plays at last year’s Fringe, so I already knew them to be powerful actors. Here they are two homeless men, sitting on boxes on the small stage at the Dukebox surrounded by bin-liners full of their scanty possessions, wearing a hoodie and a woollen cap above their rough clothing, and fingerless woollen gloves to give them some protection against the cold. Nunes de Souza is playing on a ukulele – badly. A bit later they’re drinking booze out of cans wrapped in newspaper, but as they say – "It doesn’t really keep you warm, it just numbs you".
They’re outraged to read an article in a local paper about a ‘sham’ homeless man, allegedly making £300 a week begging on the street, and then ‘going back to his home in his own car’. Some typical editorial comment followed – ‘Not an uncommon occurrence, symptomatic of an illusion of hardship for the homeless’.
They decide to send in a counter article, telling of events from their own lives, and subsequently they are asked to write regularly for the paper. One of the events they relate took place in an Indian restaurant – the underlying distrust between homeless people and the police led to a misunderstanding, followed by an argument, followed by violence and an arrest. John and Nunes de Souza each related the story from their own perspective, and we could see that there had been a clash of two completely different views of society. At the end of it we heard the policeman (Nunes de Souza) – "I didn’t get my naan bread" and the arrested homeless man (John) – "I didn’t get my phone call". (to a soliciter, presumably – although Legal Aid has been cut, too)
As well as personal stories, they send in obituaries, and Alexander John read them out in a formal voice, with the lights down and the two men holding torches to illuminate just their faces in the darkness.
"Owen ‘Clay’ Clayton. Age 54. Former teacher, political activist and artist. From Liverpool. Moved to London in the late 90’s for career prospects. Fan of jazz music, oil painting and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Died of pneumonia, in Shoreditch, on Thursday night"
There were others, too. Entire lives sketched out; vivid, interesting lives cut tragically short. Not exactly as the editorial had stated – ‘symptomatic of an illusion of hardship for the homeless’ . . .
But the mainstream newspapers aren’t interested in all that. They want to feed us celebrity scandal. Samuel Nunes de Souza gave up his West Indian accent and switched to middle-class RP as he told us about little Hayley Rivers – child star and TV sensation. "Five years ago, when Hayley was only eleven, she had her first hit single. Money, fame followed – not bad going for a juvenile delinquent with a family history of mental illness and substance abuse" And of course, we like our celebrities flawed – "Three years ago, she refused to go on stage because of a broken hair dryer, and 70,000 fans lost out" Finally Nunes de Souza handed us envelopes – "Photographs of Hayley. Here she is naked, here she is crying, here she is naked and crying" . . .
Red lighting on Nunes de Souza for this section – for the sort of story that fills the Red Top newspapers and magazines. And all the while, the two men kept bringing on armfuls of crumpled, torn newspapers, where they looked for responses to their own stories and were outraged by the banalities and lies that they found there. The stage was becoming deeper and deeper in crumpled paper – full of crap. They’re sleeping rough, and they are conscious of a bad smell, but I began to realise that it wasn’t just bodily odour but all the crap in the newspapers that surrounded them.
The focus kept changing. At one point they were a pair of worthy politicians, setting out a programme to deal with the problem of homelessness. "Your Country needs you. There is a problem in our society – on our streets. Poor, innocent, homeless people, living in squalor, without warmth, without food, without shelter".
Fine so far – but then their programme began to get more right-wing as they wanted ‘the Majority – homeowners’ to be ‘for the Minority’. This soon morphed into ‘the Majority IN CONTROL OF the Minority’ and an insistence that – "Living in squalor is Wrong. Living on the street is Wrong. Living anywhere but in your own home is Wrong". And so finally – "All homelessness is Wrong. Giving them money is Wrong. Taking away their blankets and cardboard boxes and shelters will FORCE them to find other ways of keeping warm – like getting houses" . . .
This was satire worthy of Jonathan Swift. In fact Swift was on my mind a lot in this production. The passage above reminded me irresistibly of ‘A Modest Proposal’, where he suggested that the Irish could solve their problems of famine by eating their own children. The amount of crap in the newspapers, too, brought to mind the foul shit-throwing Yahoos from ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
They managed more of the same with their proposals to restrict the vote to older people. "Voting age of 18? How many responsible 18-year-olds do you know?
When I was 18 I was goin’ out, gettin’ drunk, startin’ fights. And at 21, I was still goin’ out, but I’d by then I’d found some proper drugs. And disabled people only want to vote for more disabled stickers and stuff". So here’s their programme – a touch of Orwell in this one –
VOTE YES TO LESS VOTES
Kaleidoscopic. The two kept jumping back and forth into different roles. At one point they got out their tins and worked their way along the Dukebox seating, begging from the audience members. (No, I didn’t . . .)
As with Rooster‘s production of ‘See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil’, which you can find reviewed on FringeReview at ‘Brighton Fringe 2014‘, Laura Duffy’s set design made great use of a compact performance space. Her direction, along with co-director Sofia Nakou, kept the piece mobile and our attention engaged throughout. As a devised piece, though, I imagine that the two actors themselves had a lot of input on their movements and emotional range. Their frequent direct engagement with the audience gave it a feeling somewhere between stand-up comedy and Brecht.
At the end the two men are sitting on boxes, calf deep by then in the accumulated crap that is all the shredded and crumpled-up newspapers – full of shitty lies – and they are sipping coffee in gas masks. Sleeping rough, they’ve been complaining about the smells, but now they simply ignoring the smell by wearing masks.
But in this bit they’re wearing clean white shirts, and Nunes de Souza is wearing a tie, so they must be US. It’s us, getting on with our elegant lives while we ignore all the poisonous crap about homeless people and immigrants that floods over us every day.
Gas masks and coffee – a surreally powerful image that will stay with me for months.