Cardboard Citizens’ artistic director Adrian Jackson tells Tom Wicker what inspired his new play, A FEW MAN FRIDAYS.
In the late 1960s, the inhabitants of the British-owned Chagos Islands were evicted to make way for a US military base. This was the result of a secret deal that saw the UK government classify the Chagosians as ‘non-indigenous’ (and therefore removable) in exchange for a US-backed $11 million subsidy on the Polaris nuclear deterrent.
The consequences of this inglorious episode in British history are still being felt decades later. The Chagosians’ right to return to their Indian Ocean home is now before the European Court of Human Rights. Perhaps most significantly, in 2010, the then Labour government declared the majority of the archipelago a marine protection zone. Many have argued that the effect this has had on fishing – the main trade on the islands – will have serious ramifications for the success of any future attempt at resettlement.
Taking these events as its backdrop, A Few Man Fridays begins in the age of Cold War secrets and ends in the era of global warming. Ex-Rasta Prosper is lost in London, trying to make sense of his dog-filled dreams; Madame Talate remembers her home as a paradise; and Teddy Hibbert loves turtles but has trouble remembering people. Their stories collide in the dream-turned-nightmare of one Stu Barber.
On at Riverside Studios (Hammersmith) from 10 February to 10 March, A Few Man Fridays has been devised by groundbreaking theatre company Cardboard Citizens, which stages theatre-based and site-specific productions to raise awareness of the lives of homeless and displaced people.
I spoke with Adrian Jackson, writer of A Few Man Fridays and artistic director of Cardboard Citizens, about what inspired him to tell the Chagosians’ story, the challenge of dramatising ongoing events and the importance of making theatre accessible to all.
Hi Adrian. What first drew you to the plight of the Chagosians?
I was briefly in Mauritius in 2000 and I saw the slums they lived in. When I asked my host about it, I became drawn to the story, in part because it was something that had happened in my lifetime. It began when I was young man and has continued ever since. I certainly feel a connection between the homeless stories that Cardboard Citizens is used to working with and stories of the world homeless.
Why did you feel that it would be a good subject to dramatise?
Stories that involve a lot of lying are usually good for dramatising, as are stories about trying to find out who you are. And a man who is seeking his history is at the centre of our version of events.
What made Riverside Studios the right venue for you?
Riverside Studios is one of the great London open theatre spaces; and as it is also a TV studio, great for projection, which we use a lot during the play.
The play’s title is based on British diplomat Dennis Greenhill’s description of the island’s inhabitants in 1966. Why did this resonate with you?
The casual, civil service throwaway style of that comment just seemed to sum up the government’s disregard for the Chagosians at the time, which made it perfect for our play. Remarkably, since the Chagos Islands have been designated a Marine Protection Area, the same Robinson Crusoe-style language about “Man Fridays” has been used again.
As you say, the Chagosians recently suffered the setback of the Chagos Islands being declared a marine protection zone. How do you approach telling a story that is still ongoing?
By trying to keep up to date. We’re definitely open to adding new material to the play. It may be the case that, either before we open or halfway through the run, there will be a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights. If so, we will have to find a way to incorporate that.
What (or who) first inspired you to write and direct?
When I was at university I was invited to act in a play, saw how badly it was directed and thought: I can do that! As for the writing, well, that’s been growing for the past 5-7 years, as I’ve got more confident and met people with stories I want to tell.
You have much experience of Theatre of the Oppressed, which involves developing a piece of work through forum discussion. Could you explain its benefits?
It is about making this fantastic form of expression called theatre available to everyone, particularly to those who don’t normally have access to it. It is about opening up debate, investigation, exploration and self-expression. It is about instilling a sense of strength and joy.
What are the aims and objectives of Cardboard Citizens?
We want to use theatre to bring about change in homeless people’s lives and in society at large. We do this in a number of different ways, including discovering the stories of the people we work with and sharing these with a wider audience.
What do you hope an audience will take away from seeing A Few Man Fridays?
I hope they will have had a good night out, while at the same time understanding more about the effect of world events on people. I hope they will leave feeling moved and possibly a little bit angry. But I also hope they will have had the pleasure of hearing a fascinating story, well told.
What is up next for you?
The next play Cardboard Citizens will be working on is about Shirley Porter and the Westminster Council gerrymandering scandal of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which had homeless people at its centre. Porter sought to change the political boundaries of the borough by moving poor people out and richer people in.
For more information on A Few Man Fridays, and to book tickets, see: http://www.offwestend.com/index.php/plays/view/7195