There are four main threads to our story, woven into each other across the piece.
The story of Miranda, her mother and father, her friend, Freddie, his friend Stefan, and all their class-mates…. here in post-Brexit Oxford.
The story of Asefay, one of our company, who came to the UK as a refugee from Ethiopia by way of Sudan, and now lives and works in the University.
These contemporary stories rework & replay two (apparently) more distant (con)texts:
The religious wars and the refugee crisis of the early C16th century, a determining influence on Thomas More’s Utopia — a text which inspired Montaigne when he was writing his Essais, from which Shakespeare learned much in turn, as we see from More’s speech about refugees in the play, The Boke of Sir Thomas More, and from….
The Tempest, which lends our show some compelling characers, and its utopian tale of conflict, exile, and redemption, of storms, lovers, familes, monsters…. and books.
How we work
We set out — and continue to try — not to ignore the often dystopian aspects of living in the many island communities that make up Oxford; our aim is, rather, to explore what it might mean to live creatively, and in community, as part of an archipelago…
An intergenerational exercise in practical utopianism, the Storming Utopia project has engaged a motley crew – a bit like those washed up on Shakespeare’s island — in discussion about the constitution of ideal communities. In a series of weekly evening meetings over the course of six months, we discussed what makes an island – my favourite definition: ‘something surrounded by something other than itself, like spilt milk on the kitchen floor’; we discussed the ancient meanings and contemporary significances of Utopia; and, of course, we discussed Brexit, and the insular turn taken by much recent contemporary political discourse.
Throughout our discussion, theatre games, writing exercises, improvisations and so on, something that has struck us a great deal – and that has become central to our show – has been the early modern echo-effect of many of the metaphors and arguments around Brexit.
Much of the language about Brexit echoes that of the Reformation, Tudor times, and the British and European Civil Wars – the great divorce, the clash of religions, parliamentary sovereignty, the tyranny of the majority, the Union of the UK, hard and soft borders in Ireland: all these are themes that were very much alive in the early modern period, and have a new urgency today….
The central questions we have been asking are: who owns, runs, or governs the city we live in? how do you get in, and how do you leave? do the various parts of Oxford – schools, mosques, churches, rivers, playgrounds, shopping centres, colleges… and theatres – make of our city a Utopia, or just a collection of islands?
These are ancient questions, but they all still matter today.
Like magpies, we make the most of the experiences of everyone in the group, as of the texts, images and stories they bring to the project. These have included the experiences of contemporary migrants of many kinds, many of whom have found in our city a place of refuge. The question of migration has been at the centre of our explorations. So, too, have two contrasting ‘early modern’ lines, or poetic claims: the one from the Tempest, the other from John Donne, ‘This Island’s mine’ – ‘No man is an island’.
Our aim all along, has been to set the rhetoric, the history, the national and the international questions alongside the local: to explore the continuing resonance and force of early modern writing, in the context of the experience of what it is to live, and work, creatively in Oxford, today.
Our collaboration with Pegasus Theatre, Oxford
At the heart of the artistic vision of the Pegasus is a principle of creative exchange – between cultures, classes, generations, professional artists and non-professionals. This project, in its process and its theme, embodies perfectly that principle. It brings young people from Pegasus into places and ideas in Oxford they might not normally access, and does the same with Oxford academics.
Pegasus Theatre supported this project because:
- It helped us develop a closer working relationship with the University of Oxford, building builds on our existing creative relationship with Wes Williams following Dream On, the show we collaborated on in 2013.
- The subject matter chimed brilliantly with our theme for the 2015 Creative Learning programme: ‘A perfect world?’ Young people considered what in their city contributes to their well-being. From these ideas they explored other societies around the world, now and historically, and looked at how they exist, the ideals they live by.