Northern Stage and Common Wealth have created a new production with residents of Byker in Newcastle. The creators tell Tracey Sinclair how they hope it will leave a lasting legacy
One of the highlights of Northern Stage’s autumn season is I Have Met the Enemy (and the Enemy Is Us) – a community show with a difference. It is not just a co-production with site-specific theatre company Common Wealth, but part of a wider programme of engagement with the local community in Byker, Newcastle that they hope will leave a lasting impact.
Created with input from the residents of the Byker Wall estate, the show is about tackling the UK’s role in the international arms trade and premieres in Byker Community Centre, offering £2 tickets for residents. With approximately 12,000 inhabitants, Byker is an inner-city area of Newcastle, best known outside the region for the BBC children’s soap Byker Grove, which famously spawned local TV heroes Ant and Dec. The estate has seen many social and economic ups and downs, but it is also home to one of the country’s most famous housing blocks – the Byker Wall, designed by architect Ralph Erskine and built in the 1970s to replace Victorian terraces that were condemned in the 1960s. Run by the Byker Community Trust, the estate is now Grade II*-listed, and its recent regeneration was recognised with an award for being the best neighbourhood in the UK.
The genesis of this new production came from Northern Stage’s artistic director Lorne Campbell seeing Common Wealth’s show No Guts, No Heart, No Glory in Edinburgh. He was drawn by the company’s practice of co-creation: “They empower new artists – people for whom cultural experience and cultural expression has not necessarily been part of their lives – to form and shape work which is aesthetically, politically and socially ambitious.”
Founded in 2008 by Evie Manning and Rhiannon White, Common Wealth’s political ethos made it an obvious fit for Byker, an area with a strong working-class and immigrant community. The pair also co-direct I Have Met the Enemy, which was devised by the company with playwright and journalist Hassan Mahamdallie.
“We started off in a very DIY way, with no money and no funding, just a massive ambition and passion to make theatre for working-class audiences,” White says. Although the pair met in Bristol, the company is based between Bradford – where Manning is from – and White’s home city of Cardiff. The latter says: “These are both places people often move away from, but we decided to move back and make things happen where we live. Respectively, in both areas, we work in the heart of the communities that we are from.”
These areas have obvious parallels with a post-industrial city like Newcastle. “Our mission is to make work that is relevant, and that challenges narratives in a positive way, raising questions and speaking to the heart of people and place,” White says. “Northern Stage was doing a lot of groundwork in Byker and this felt like a rich opportunity to create something here.”
Having worked with steelworkers on We’re Still Here – a collaboration with National Theatre Wales – Common Wealth is no stranger to tackling big ideas from a personal perspective – what White describes as “big political questions unpicked by lived experience”.
She continues: “This is a very working-class story, when our young people are joining the army. And there’s an assumption that working-class areas will not talk about these big political things, but they do all the time – everybody I have met here has something to say about the arms trade.”
The main cast members – which include Palestinian actor Mo’min Swaitat, ex-serviceman Alexander Eley and Yemeni painter Shatha Altowai, whose contribution was filmed in advance in collaboration with Yemen-based Comra Films – all have direct, though very different, experiences of the impact of the arms industry.
First on board was Swaitat, who grew up on the West Bank. “What attracted me to the project is that this is personal,” he says. “Basically, I was brought up in a military colonisation zone – the media calls it a ‘conflict’ or ‘occupation’, but it’s a military colonisation.”
While Swaitat is an experienced actor, this is Eley’s first theatrical role. An ex-soldier from Port Albert who served two tours in Afghanistan, he was given a medical discharge from the army after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. A conversation with a counsellor, who had seen the company’s call-out for participants, led him to connect with the project. “I have no experience in acting, but I have a lot of experience in conflict and combat, so I can tell my story from being involved in a conflict area. I’ve seen with my own eyes the impact the arms trade has,” he says.
The men discovered a common interest in industrial techno music, which also helped shaped the production. It uses Glasgow-based visual artist Robbie Thomson’s designs, featuring 72 electronic metronomes, which represent the 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets sold to Saudi Arabia this year by the UK.
“I was brought up surrounded by music – wedding music, street music, storytelling and fairytales. As a Bedouin, this is who I am,” says Swaitat, who is working on a documentary about the techno scene among working-class immigrants in the US. Eley’s techno DJing gave him valuable emotional release when he was struggling with PTSD: “When I play for an audience, I can make people feel good, create different atmospheres – it’s empowering for me. I always felt I wasn’t in control of my emotions, but when I play the music, I feel like I’m totally in control.”
As well as exploring the performers’ own experiences, the team invited other viewpoints, including those of veterans at Byker’s Avondale House, residential accommodation run by the charity Armed Forces’ and Veterans’ Launchpad, which helps ex-service people return to civilian life.
“The questions we ask are not one-sided – it’s complex as hell,” White says. “We’ve been looking at all sides – what about jobs? What about technology? Having input from the guys at Avondale really helped us shape those bigger questions. Because they are our audience as well.”
The companies wanted to involve local people in the show’s creation. “We always have an open-door rehearsal policy – people can come and go as they please. Not just because we want to open the doors and be nice, but because we’re genuinely interested in how that feeds the performance,” White says.
While the show will have a life beyond Byker with a tour planned after it previews in Bradford, its creation is part of a wider community engagement programme by Northern Stage, whose rehearsal space is in the area. This year, it was involved with Newcastle’s Best Summer Ever programme, which was run during the school holidays and included free activities such as children’s creative workshops.
Jill Adamson, Northern Stage’s director of participation, says: “It’s about making relationships and working with community gatekeepers. We’ve been resident for the whole of the six weeks’ holiday, so we’re getting to know many people with children – parents and grandparents – and the reaction has been fantastic.”
Like White, she believes that residents will be keen to engage with such a bold production. “Byker residents are not your traditional theatregoers, they aren’t going to come in with the same kind of preconceptions of what theatre is.”
She stresses this is just the first stage of what Northern Stage hopes will be a fruitful journey – and one steered by the residents, not the company.
Campbell adds: “Our job is to create the opportunities and the structures and the moments of contact that empower different people who live within Byker to come to us and say: ‘We want this thing,’ and then for us to be able to use our cultural capital and networks to be able to bring that work into Byker in a way that is meaningful. In the long-term, I hope there are a whole range of spaces in Byker we can present work in and a whole range of partnerships that we can use to present that work where the choice of what that work looks like is made by the people who live there.”
I Have Met the Enemy (and the Enemy Is Us) runs at Byker Community Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne until October 26. For details visit: northernstage.co.uk