Edinburgh Fringe 2018
A surreal road trip in the wake of Britain’s EU referendum – but this isn’t a Brexit show, as writer/performer Chris Thorpe tells the audience. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it’s not just a Brexit show, but also a show about privilege, the legacy of colonisation and the meaning of this strange thing we call nationality.
Award winning theatre maker Chris Thorpe has once again teamed with rock star American director Rachel Chavkin, Artistic Director of The TEAM after their Fringe First Award winning Confirmation. At the time of writing, Status has just won a Fringe First at this year’s festival.
Kicking off with a story of a visit to Croatia where, upon witnessing police brutality of the kind that would never happen in the UK (at least not in public, as he drily points out), Chris drunkenly tries to intervene. His local friend saves him from being on the receiving end of the policeman’s fist with two magic words: “He’s British.” Not only is Chris British, he’s a white British man in his forties (his words). The privilege just keeps on building.
This incident leads Chris to unpack the social and historical circumstances that have led to those words being quite as effective as they were. And so begins a story, about a man called Chris who is not the Chris standing before us (the main difference seems to be the lustrous blonde hair our imaginary Chris has in contrast to the man standing before us whose hair is, let’s say, not long and blonde). Our imaginary Chris sits on his roof early in the morning after the referendum result comes in, looking out at the London skyline. He makes a decision – he packs a bag and takes a bus then a train and ends up at Heathrow Airport. America beckons.
Chris has two passports. Identical British passports, except for the passport number and expiry date. Two copies of him. A woman he meets on the plane and the bartender in the American bar he visits can’t understand it. Why does he have two? Is one English and one British? The Navajo tour guide is less interested in why he has two and more annoyed that Chris has tried to bury these passports in the sand on Navajo land in an attempt to leave his British identity behind. The Navajo man isn’t conflicted about this nationality – he understands the impossibility of packaging a parcel of land and labelling it a “country”. And, he tells Chris, could he please tell his people to stop inexplicably making piles out of the rocks when they visit Navajo land?
The story becomes more and more surreal from there, with a talking coyote and a visit to an awful, futuristic Singaporean club, with Chris ever self-aware and self-deprecatingly making fun of his own “vision quest” or mid-life crisis, and his own privilege at even being able to afford to embark on such a thing. Visiting the United States and Singapore, two countries known for their intense and overtly displayed patriotism, with regular recitations of their national pledges and raising of their flag’s to their country’s anthems is an interesting juxtaposition to a reserved British man who is quietly trying to shed his own national identity.
The story is interspersed with sections of abrasive guitar songs, which continue along the same lines as the monologue, reinforcing the themes of the piece. Why should we listen to a white man in his forties talk about his identity crisis and play his electric guitar? It’s not as painful as it sounds and this is down to the intelligent, incisive, humorous writing, and the genuine sincerity and charisma of the performer. Chris freely admits that his perspective may not be as valid or as interesting as many others that we could see at this festival, coming as he is from such a position of privilege. This show certainly doesn’t have the impact of some of the work I’ve seen by incredible performers of colour at this festival. But it does ask important questions, and that’s something we’re all entitled to do and should be engaging in.
With a backdrop of a large projection screen, at times this one-man monologue is reminiscent of a really good Ted Talk. The Teresa May “citizens of nowhere” quote projected on the screen critiques Chris’ quest to become a stateless man. Chris tries to lose his passports but he can’t fight the overwhelming feeling that this would, in the end, make no difference. His nationality isn’t something he can run away from.
This is an intelligent and articulate deconstruction of the simultaneous meaning and meaninglessness of the construct of nationality which is worth checking out in a time of upheaval as Britain tries desperately (and so far, ineptly) to redefine itself.