Seda Ilter on Andy Smith’s Summit (Brighton Festival, 2017)
Seda Ilter on Andy Smith’s Summit (Brighton Festival, 2017)
May 2017: Brexit is happening, the Conservatives repeat their immigration pledge in the election campaign, the NHS is suffering, war in Syria is killing more children every day, global warming is rapidly affecting human lives while climate change denial is still an issue … I am walking to the community space The Spire in Brighton on a sunny afternoon to see the preview of Andy Smith’s Summit at the Brighton Festival.
Summit is about an international meeting that is held at a time of crisis in order to tackle with unidentified catastrophic event/s. The story of the summit is told by three performers in three different languages – English, British Sign Language and Farsi – and in three acts taking place in different time frames – the future, the past, and then the present.
The performers welcome us and give us some directions about the first act: when the lights go out we travel to the future, to a thousand years from now! Lights go out and come back on, we are all here but in 3017 – a world where there is ‘less capitalism, less privatisation, less confusion, less devastation’ and ‘more understanding, better relations, better climate, better government’. A thousand years ago, when ‘nobody knew what we should do’, we made the change happen despite wars, referendums, terrorists and exits.
Following this, the performers inform us about the second act: the lights will go out again, yet this time we will go back to five years ago from today, to 2012. Lights come back on. Here in 2012, the world is full of separation, corruption, poverty and terrorism; we should do something about it before it’s too late, they say. We need to get together and do something about it; we need to hold a meeting, a summit.
Then, it’s time for the final act: it takes place here and now, it is the present moment where the summit is taking place. We are at the summit. Blackout.
Similar to Smith’s other works, Summit feels like an easy-going meeting between performers and audience that has an accessible language and form, and that focuses on the idea of everyone being together here and now. Yet, within this simple frame the piece turns out to be an intensely thought-provoking experience, firing our imaginations with intricate questions and inviting us to think about our contemporary circumstances and concerns, and how we can respond to them. The plot structure with different time frames highlights the worsening conditions we have been living in and, along with the repeated emphasis on our agreed act of gathering in a room, stresses the need for a change that can only be achieved through solidarity. Summit, however, does not present a dystopian story. On the contrary, it proposes an energising, optimistic narrative that frustrates the disbelief in the possibility for socio-political change and social solidarity, which has been increasingly effective in the age of ‘postpolitics’. Hence, the past and future are given to emphasise the now that we live in, the now of the theatre event. The summit happens in this moment and in this place of gathering. Here, we understand that the whole structure of Summit has been paving the way to this moment, the final remark, telling us that the summit is happening inside us here where we have gathered to think together towards possibilities for change.
The use of different languages purposefully creates a colourful diversity and state of unintelligibility that asks the audience to be patient with what they do not understand and cannot access (http://www.larktheatre.org/blog/being-patient-what-we-dont-understand/). It calls for tolerance to difference and otherness, and for listening and hearing what the ‘other’ has to say. Although we were told that the utterances in sign language and Farsi were repetitions of the text that we would hear in English first, as audiences we were still keen to listen to the words and sounds we didn’t understand. During these moments of incomprehensibility, it was intriguing to see that the majority of the audience were leaning towards the stage from their seats with the intention of making sense of the foreign languages, to hear the voice of the other. This type of language use created a powerful gesture testing how we feel in the face of otherness and calling for tolerance that is much needed in our current reality of rising racism and neo-fascism.
The minimalist language, generated through the repeated use of simple, direct and short phrases in an easy-to-understand pace, draws our attention to the words. As a manifestation of dematerialised theatre Summit does not present us with anything but the text and three performers responsible for delivering it. In this pure experience of theatre that is based on telling without showing, we are responsible for imaginatively registering the words in our minds and transforming them for theatre to happen through and with us. In Summit, as in Smith’s other works, the showing is in the seeing, the theatre is not happening mainly on the stage but beyond it – in the collective consciousness and imagination of the speaker and the beholder.
As the summit is taking place in and with us in this room, a memory from last summer comes to my mind: A Turkish family on a Greek island, looking for a place to have dinner, goes to a Greek fisherman’s tavern where there is no one but the fisherman and his family. They realise that none of the sides speaks the other’s language, yet, after a while, here they are, sitting at the same table eating, drinking and talking together. They patiently listen to and hear each other, albeit differences in language and political traumas in their histories. This is a hopeful place!
Theatre is a hopeful place.
Summit is happening and will continue to happen as we all know; as Bertolt Brecht said, ‘[b]ecause things are the way they are, things will not stay the way they are.’
by Seda Ilter, May 2017