It was gutting to hear that the Young Vic had to cancel their plans for a gigantic street party to celebrate their 50th birthday in September. Like many of us who have celebrated birthdays during the pandemic, the theatre was forced to opt instead for a smaller, more socially distanced affair. Nevertheless, the work they produced was a compelling reminder of why the Young Vic is such an important part of the theatre industry.
Artistic Director Kwame Kwei-Armah kicked off the celebration with three major commissions – two of which brought the work beyond the four walls of the building, and onto its exterior for the community to enjoy. The third commission was the first piece of live theatre performed to an audience at the Young Vic since lockdown.
The first commission, the YV 50th Projection Project, saw the nightly illumination of the Waterloo venue with video projection of people and productions who have contributed to the theatre over the past five decades. The projection (with video design by Duncan McLean) was a tribute to all those who make up the ‘DNA’ of the Young Vic.
The Unforgotten, their next commission, was an interactive art installation that aimed to (re)consider who we celebrate as our heroes in society. Inspired by the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and created by Sadeysa Greenaway-Bailey and Anna Fleischle, the installation features giant and vibrant artworks of ‘unsung Black trailblazers’ Mary Seacole, the British-Jamaican nurse; Marsha P. Johnson, an American LGBTQ+ activist; and Ulric Cross, a Trinidadian diplomat, RAF navigator, and most decorated black serviceman of World War II.
The toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol back in June raised pressing questions around the types of historical figures that society chooses to revere. The Unforgotten was a response to the urgent need to decolonise our history, and to recognise the role of Black pioneers in creating the society we live in today.
The installation also sought to engage with the local community, inviting the public to nominate their own overlooked heroes by writing them on the side of the building. The exteriors of the theatre were adorned with pieces of paper and a chalkboard, on which people not only wrote names, but also reflections and affirmations around Black Lives Matter. Despite being unable to hold a huge street party, the Young Vic have still succeeded in making their festivities free and accessible to all.
The third project, titled The New Tomorrow, was a collection of speeches, monologues and songs, performed to a socially distanced live audience at the theatre on 4-5 October, and live-streamed on Facebook. With an amazing list of creatives (including Adjoa Andoh, Paapa Essiedu, Jasmine Lee-Jones and Isobel Waller-Bridge), the piece looked forward to what the next 50 years may hold, focusing on the impact of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter on society as we know it.
Highlights of the show included the harrowing, yet at times comic, Black Pain Redux by Jasmine Lee-Jones, skilfully performed by Paapa Essiedu; Emoji Tennis by Ruth Madeley and Jack Thorne, performed by Sophie Stone; and Tom Gill’s “love letter to the alt-right”, titled Wear a bloody mask.
The performance was informal, with many of the actors having scripts in hand, yet it remained a brilliant reminder of the political and emotional power of live theatre. Being in the room as The New Tomorrow was performed felt like an incredibly significant moment.
The work produced over the past month marks the beginning of a year-long programme of work at the Young Vic called We are the New Tide. We are undeniably living through a sea change in culture and society, and it is no surprise that it’s the Young Vic who are leading with pioneering, diverse and community-driven work that responds to the unique times we are in. While it wasn’t the 50th birthday they had planned, it is undoubtedly one that will go down in history.
Image by Aaron Imuere