Performing Poverty and Sickness: reflections on ‘The House’ (2015) and COVID (2019)
We are living in “unprecedented” times we are told daily through the government performance talks on the telly which in this third month have become extremely tiring and worn out like overlong runs of badly done Shakespeare.
Friday Night quiz nights with family and friends in and from Coventry have been regular features of ‘Lockdown’ and ‘Not So Locked Down’. My youngest brother Matthew organised this and I am really grateful for his foresight.
Funnily enough and also really random, the term COVID makes me think of COVKID. I am a ‘Coventry Kid’ born within hearing the distant bells of Coventry, (not really that’s just me playing with London-centric etymology). We ‘Coventry Kids’ were born with a button in our caps – that’s the ‘truthful’ mythology. When referring to Coventry I use COV for short – it’s not a big leap to COVKID – COVID – something about ostracisation, isolation, civil unrest and so on – dreaming, ruminating, remembering. It very much depends though on if you pronounce ‘O’ roundly or flatly – a bit like Baath or Bath: Cohvid or Covid. And it very much depends on where you might place yourself with the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.
Lockdown and COVID-19 have meant that, in amongst working from home artistically and council-illy, I have been able to finish creative tasks that have been waiting for forever while also sorting my council casework with due care and attention. For many, I imagine, COVID-19 has allowed for the re-evaluation of time, getting things in perspective and entering a world of virtual performances, online discussions, re-visitings and documentations: in short, filling your boots with performances of creativity and political shenanigans.
In amongst this has been the TV driven dramatic soap opera that daily has featured government officials, medical experts and more recently ‘staff’ in rose gardens performing instalments at around about 5 or 6pm and sometimes 4pm or sometimes even 4.30pm. “Sorry I’m late,” was the contrite remark I recall, that day.
In addition to the government performances I have been particularly curious about the uncomfortable virtual performances of sickness seen in the many documentaries coming to our screens through government funded patronage or through the voluntary personal participation of the obliging public via selfies at bedsides and the self enforced sharing of suffering online. Then of course there are our weekly shows on our doorsteps where we clap but also may feel uncomfortable for reasons beyond our control.
We have witnessed the “unprecedented” performance of our Prime Minister’s own sickness and I admit I was terrified for him so I hung on each 5pm episode. The narrative took on biblical proportions in its collision with religious festivals at Easter time. I was drawn into his heroic journey as he emerged from his personal crisis with his own baby Jesus. It was indeed a miracle of survival set alongside the thousands of unwitnessed, silent tragedies that happen across the world daily and not only from the virus. Then, wonder of wonder, his own Angel Gabriel committed the unpardonable sin of travelling several hundred (actually 273) miles to a concrete building on a farm some 30 minutes from a place that takes its name from a medieval castle. This shocking revelation distracted us over the ascension period so that we took our eyes off the ball ignoring all other important news we didn’t need to know.
‘Needing to know’ I think has been the impetus for all stories I have worked up and moved to performance over the years.
The House was about and took the form of a performance of a movement of poverty. Looking at the material through fresh eyes and after 10 years of austerity, a deep encounter with local politics and again through the lens of my own unfinished ancestral story, I have seen evidence of how this work plays out in my daily work as a councillor. I have seen the various characters materialise again and again from the evidence obsessed fun-raising politician to the ‘stressed out of her head’ job-seeking gymnast whose Universal Credit note has disappeared into the .gov.uk ether.
This online version of The House is in two parts – the first is the talk where I give the ancestral history and my own relationship with welfare. I have presented this as a video essay with additional subtitles and observations that weren’t in the original. I’ve also added a voiceover where I thought the original sound was not so good. It’s 14 minutes long.
When I was working on The House I was always uneasy about the talk and think retrospectively it might have been better woven into the whole action of the piece. This was verified by some audience comments during the very short tour in late 2015 early 2016.
The second part of The House is more like your conventional performance. However it’s a little different because of the set up at the beginning which, if you don’t watch the talk, you may not realise. The audience members are cast either as deserving or underserving poor. They are placed deliberately in terms of their position in relation to the action. They are ‘on show’ performing their own fictitious poverty. They haven’t paid to see the work so they are part of the ‘onstage’ action. They are the exhibition of poverty with me as curator/performer.
All audience members have been admitted by virtue of the size of the straw they chose at the threshold of the performance. The third audience (the benefactors) are more privileged and sit ‘end on’. They can witness the benefits of their patronage and see everything holding their positions by virtue of the largest straw.