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Connections at the National Theatre

It was a privilege to attend the closing night of Connections at the National Theatre on Monday. 

The first performance, “What are they Like?,” was a sweetly evocative look at the relationships between parents and children, with young actors dressed as parents recounting advice and stories about their parenting techniques.  It was in turns funny, moving, frightening and touching on a knowing nostalgia of childhood.  

I immediately warmed to the conceit of these younger actors playing much older parts: they had all the anxious earnestness of children playing dress-up, trying to emulate adulthood (which of course is exactly what they were doing.)  And as the show unfolded it became clear from the series of almost documentary-style monologues that the adults themselves felt a deep uncertainty about their appearance to their children, that they often felt they were play-acting at grown-up-ness. 

I wanted to tell these young actors that it doesn’t ever actually get any less confusing, any less awkward: I spend much of my adult life feeling like a fraud, like I’ve accidentally dressed in my mother’s power suits from the early 90s and I’m trying to grapple with grown-up things that are actually much too big and too serious for little me.  But there is one difference now than there was then: I recognize now that the confusion and awkwardness is because I keep seeking out ever-greater challenges.  If I didn’t spend much of my time feeling like I were in deep waters, I wouldn’t feel like I were challenging myself enough.  Scary as they are, those confusing and awkward feelings are some of the most worthwhile ones in life.  Hold on to them.

Late in the show came a little tale of a father wondering whether his son still needed him: he calls sometimes for a lift, but he’s doing it out of laziness rather than need.  The dad goes anyway, he always goes.  This is when I started blubbing, remembering my own Dad telling me that no matter what time it was, if I called he would always come get me–no matter where in the world I was, he would always come get me.  And now I live on a different continent, and I am old enough to get myself safely home when I need to.  But I know with a certainty matched by few others in my life that if I called, Dad would still come get me.  (This was then immediately followed by a mother describing telling her two boys the exact same thing, which did not help dry my eyes.) 

The second show, “Mobile Phone Show,” had a very different energy from the earlier one, with the players alternately acting as a Greek chorus, a corps of soldiers, and a troupe of dancers, with vignettes from one or two or three characters popping out between. 

My favourite thing about this performance was the way it altered the space of the Olivier Theatre.  The National Theatre is the theatre of the nation; it belongs to everyone.  Despite its efforts to fulfill this mission as far as possible, it can be easy to think of the National as the ultimate bastion of a cultural reliquary where we store the highbrow, hushed, elite Great Works of Britain.  (I say “we”.  I am only here on sufferance of course, as a mere immigrant.)  The Olivier is a place for hushed silences broken when appropriate by decorous applause and possibly gentle, mellifluous laughter. 

“Mobile Phone Show” unhesitatingly smashed this, allowing us to experience an Olivier Theatre of raucous noise, of catcalls and interruptions and redirections.  We, the audience, became the show for a little bit.  This production drew a bead on the questions of what the National Theatre is for, who it is for, and what we can do there, shattered them into little pieces and reassembled them into something new and glorious. 

Afterwards, Nicholas Hytner, the director of the National Theatre, praised all the performers of the evening as well as the many, many people participating in Connections all over the country. It was a real joy to see just a glimpse of what Connections means to so many communities, the way it enriches so many lives.