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National Theatre’s 2023 Connections Festival

A show of hands was asked for from the audience – who do you identify as? “Are you a Millennial, Generation X or a Baby Boomer?” But what precisely any of those terms meant wasn’t clarified, except in the Connections 2023 programme. As I only had a chance to read it properly on the train home, I simply didn’t know, in the moment, what I was supposed to identify as. I’d heard the terms before, but then there’s also ‘Generation Y’, ‘Generation Z’, and ‘Generation Alpha’, and the cut-off points between one generation and another differ between anthropologists, sociologists and other academics, even if generally accepted definitions have evolved over time. I take some relief that I wasn’t the only one, and the biggest cohort in the audience comprised, by default, ‘none of the above’, inasmuch as quite a few of us didn’t raise our hands at all.

National Theatre's 2023 Connections FestivalI suppose this momentary experience is a taste of the kind of confusion most youngsters, for whom the Connections festival is for, go through at some point or other. The topics explored over the ten short plays featured in this year’s festival are meant to be indicative of what teenagers and young adults are thinking and talking about at the moment – that does not mean there’s an entire play in the mix about TikTok or Love Island. Instead, there is material on gang culture, toxic masculinity, and international politics. One play, Model Behaviour, considers what happens when a school introduces an MUN, or ‘Model United Nations’, a simulation of the UN General Assembly. The results (an ‘anthology’ of the play texts in the festival was on sale in the National Theatre bookshop, and I couldn’t resist) are hilarious – I had a hoot reading various ‘countries’ digging their heels in and taking non-negotiable positions. When ‘the USA’ is asked to deescalate diplomatic relations between others that have soured so much a war is on the cards, the response comes back, “The world has suffered enough from Western imperialism, I’m against intervention!

This kind of forceful yet thoughtful back and forth was also evident in the plays I saw in person. The anger some of the characters possessed in Is My Microphone On? received pushback from some classmates. There was an insistence on civility by some and an insistence on radical incivility by others. Some of the ideas put forward to tackle climate change lacked detail, or otherwise set off in my mind a series of follow-up questions. Take, for example, the idea that people should be restricted to “one long haul flight a year”: does that really mean people aren’t allowed to fly back? What if you work for an airline? The list of exemptions could end up being so extensive the principle would end up ineffective. But that idea, however far-fetched, ties into something else – global problems requiring global solutions. If something considered environmentally damaging is permitted in some countries but not others, where does that leave the world at large?

As far as the production goes, the use of a drum kit and guitars provides an opportunity to display actor-musicianship, although ultimately it didn’t add that much to proceedings. The play’s dialogue consisted of direct addresses to the audience, with no character names – a series of short phrases, sentences, questions and statements spoken by different actors, broken up by the occasional longer monologue. The precision with which it was all delivered, at pace, was nothing short of remarkable, particularly when a few of them were doing a beep test – a metaphor, I think, for a race against time to save the planet. Confrontation gives way to conciliation in a provocative and blisteringly paced production.

Strangers Like Me has nineteen scenes, too many of which were bridged by a recording of the first few lines of a translation of a Dutch children’s song. The only decipherable line was, “All the ducks are swimming in the water”, and I have no idea what the connection between that and the events that transpire in the play was. Anyway, Elbow (Jessica McGrath) is bereaved, although in the school playground and classroom settings, any possible sense of sentimentality is annihilated by the usual rough and tumble of school life. At home, meanwhile, Mum (Grace Perry) and Dad (Teelin McDonagh Nancarrow) are preoccupied with other things such that meaningful conversation is pretty much impossible.

Then there’s Elbow’s older brother Donut (Jude Crawford), who wasn’t that far removed from Harry Enfield’s creation Kevin the Teenager. Two narrators (Martyna Mis and Tait Brennan) had amusing disagreements between themselves as to how events should be described, which provided some comic relief from the main storyline. The play does well to portray Elbow’s unenviably confused headspace as the world continues to function and classmates almost fall over each other in various attempts to remember Hamster, the deceased school friend. It’s a heartfelt depiction of the grieving process in rather unforgiving circumstances.

Connections 2023 was an ambitious project – a short speech at the end of the evening’s proceedings trotted out various statistics, such as 36 ‘partner theatres’ across the UK (and one in the Republic of Ireland) and the involvement of over 5,000 young people. These are largely ensemble plays: rather than revolving around a few central characters played by a few principal actors, an ethos of inclusivity runs through the plays as well as the productions. A worthwhile endeavour.

By Chris Omaweng

Connections 2023
20 — 24 June 2023

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