Shaping This Beautiful Future, the Yard Theatre’s hit post-Brexit romance
‘Daringly unconventional’ was The Stage’s five-star verdict of the Yard Theatre’s hit play from earlier this year, now revived. Its writer and director tell Andrew Haydon how the venue’s approach to new work emboldened them
This Beautiful Future was the surprise indie smash hit of 2017. Staged at the Yard in London for an extended, sell-out run, it’s now being revived for another. Yet it was almost a completely different play until world events got in the way.
“Originally we were going to do something else,” says director Jay Miller, who is also artistic director of the Yard, sitting alongside the play’s writer Rita Kalnejais. “We had a very brief conversation about this idea. After the EU referendum in June last year, I said, ‘We have to do that play.’ ”
This Beautiful Future was ‘unwritten’ in June 2016 at the moment the Leave vote triumphed and it is clearly – at least in part – a response to that.
Set in occupied France close to the end of the Second World War, the play is a teenage love story between a 15-year-old Nazi soldier and a French girl two years his senior.
“We both felt like we really wanted to tell a love story. Like, everyone was just so sad and disappointed and disillusioned,” the writer says. She worried about missing the real-life political drama, but Miller told her not to be scared about making the story “really small”.
The inspiration for the work came from a photograph. “I had seen the picture of a French woman having her head shaved at an exhibition a few years before and it had stayed with me,” Kalnejais says. The woman’s head was shaved for having a relationship with a German soldier.
“The head-shaving, everyone turning against them: that’s kind of the drama of it,” she adds. “But we bring a lot of knowledge [of the historical events] as an audience, and that is a big part of the play itself.”
Kalnejais’ work has been performed across Australia. This Beautiful Future marked her second London production after First Love Is the Revolution at Soho Theatre.
Despite being set in the Second World War, the play was a response to global events last year. They created the play during a moment Miller refers to as “peak 2016”. The director adds: “Brexit happened, Bowie was dead, Prince was dead, Trump got the Republican Party nomination…”
He continues: “We wanted to not couch it in the past; so one of the things I went off occupying myself with was how to make it as present as possible. And that was where the old people came in.”
This Beautiful Future is basically a two-hander love story, but seemingly inexplicably it features two senior citizens singing in karaoke booths at the back of the stage.
It is perhaps their presence that turns a good play into a profound piece of theatre. The question of ‘Who are these two old people?’ is impossible to answer with any certainty. That said, it is still disconcerting to discover just how random their introduction into the text was.
“It came from a starting point of knowing that we wanted them to be present,” Miller says. “Originally, I was on a flight back from Poland and wrote Rita a long email about the idea of just two people singing.
“For ages we were asking: ‘What are they doing here?’ Every time we tried to give them the same text or anything like that it just felt wrong.”
For one draft it even became a memory play, which the creative team rejected as “so not right”. In the end, nothing is confirmed or denied about who the old people are.
This level of experimentation ahead of the production was made possible through the Yard’s development process.
“We’ve quite a lot of freedom, because we commission iteratively, in stages,” Miller says. “We develop work in chunks because we’re project-funded. It’s interesting from a process perspective. It’s an absolute nightmare from a planning/ programming perspective, because you never know if you’re going to get the money.”
What does that mean for the writer? Kalnejais says: “I do a lot of research, and I feel a lot of shame all the way through the writing process. Like: ‘I’m not giving enough, I’m not doing enough.’ So things like funding don’t reach me, because I already have a fundamental shame at play.”
The Yard’s process clearly does much to alleviate such feelings: “It’s very hands-on, the development. There were lots of reads, meetings and workshops when the play was a mess, so you get a lot braver,” Kalnejais says.
“It had four readings and workshops in a short space of time. And while you’re not as financially supported as you are in a bigger company, the amount of passion you get from everybody working in the company is kind of amazing. It makes you work hard as well.”
Miller says of the Yard: “Everybody comes to workshops and readings, has a view, and offers their view. We all know what we want to do and we all know what theatre we like. And thankfully we all have similar taste. Well, similar enough. But different enough to have a rigorous conversation about it.”
He continues: “It’s really nourishing and beneficial and it keeps me sharp. If I make a stupid comment, I’m picked up on it. Or if I make a stupid decision, I’m told it’s a bad one and they try to change it.”
Kalnejais adds: “It’s kind of amazing to have emotionally engaged conversations when something’s not technically working. That’s almost revolutionary in a development process.”
During those processes in British theatre, people usually focus on the technical aspects, the writer says. “Dramaturgy in Britain always seems to focus on whether the play is working, on the device or a play or the arc of a play.”
She continues: “Dramaturgy elsewhere is about, ‘What’s the belly of the play? What are we supposed to be feeling now, so what might be the route forward? How does this relate to the world and what other ideas might come out of that conversation?’ Rather than going: ‘Does the plot go right here?’ ”
This Beautiful Future runs at the Yard Theatre, London, until November 25