Self-described as a “Nomadic showcase of London’s new writing talent”, Brave New Word provides a performance space for newly written pieces of all genres, setting them alongside each other in order to explore a particular theme. Established in 2015, previous themes explored by Brave New Word include Instantmatch: Love in the Age of Tinder and Breakup Britain: Out of the Ashes of Brexit, and last week saw the coming together of fifteen new pieces of writing to examine the theme, Legacy: What We Leave Behind. In a time where predictions of the future are becoming increasingly apocalyptic, taking a step back to consider not only how we ourselves are remembered personally, but also how we interact with the legacy that cultures before our own have left behind, seems more relevant than ever. Brave New Word is not just a showcase of new talent, but also a space in which the chosen theme can be examined from a variety of perspectives, and this was certainly the experience of the audience in this latest production.
There was standing room only in SLAM, the new creative event space near Kings Cross that played host to Legacy: What We Leave Behind, as the first piece – a short film of David Phllips’s Old Church Plot up for Rent – began. This was one of two short films that sandwiched the first half of the evening, the other being Icarus by Ellie Danak, with the majority of the other pieces of writing taking the form of short plays. The topics of each piece varied greatly. Some, such as The Author’s Autopsy by Stacey Lane and Dead Artists are Better by Tom Clabon, examined the legacy of artists whose work goes unfinished or unappreciated; others, such as The Trump Legacy by Stephanie Silver and Heyday by Geroge Johnston, were more overtly political; and pieces such as What we Leave Behind by Paul Gallantry and Mammy Earth by Owen Morgan focused on future generations discovering artefacts from our present time and interpreting them. Also put under the microscope was the idea of fame and its ties to the idea of legacy: David Bowie received a mention in a significant number of these new pieces of writing – Abduction by Stephen Watt was even explicitly about the Starman’s passing last year – and Roslyn Hill’s #Legend explored with dark humour the financial benefits that death can bring to celebrities.
This gives a small indication of the variety of writing on display in Brave New Word’s events. Through providing a wide selection of well-rehearsed short pieces, the format engineered by Brave New Word’s founders, Florence Bell
and Emma Magnus, provides not only a platform for writers, but also for the performers who bring the pieces to life. The cast list across the fifteen pieces that made up Legacy: What We Leave Behind features twenty-five names, and it is hard to think of a weak performance form any of these actors. To name but a few, Tom Hartwell gave a richly comic performance as a reverend being haunted by the artist for whom he is in the process of giving a eulogy (Danny Steele) in Dead Artists are Better. In #Legend, Aran Bell and Flora Ogilvy both put in strong performances; the former playing Nick, a washed up 80s celebrity trying to make a comeback through acting, and the latter an amoral marketing agent who – along with her sidekick (Reece Miller) – murders Nick so as to engineer a social media frenzy that will lead to financial gain. And Sacha Mandel delivered one of the night’s standout performances as a heavily inebriated financial worker half-revelling in, half-despairing of his vacuous but lucrative lifestyle whilst trying to get one last drink from a tired barman (Greg Shewring) in Helen K Parker’s One Last One.
One of the most intriguing things about Brave New Word’s events is the way they demonstrate the unintended consequences of juxtaposing these short pieces of writing against each other. Doing this automatically places different pieces of writing in conversation with each other in the minds of the audience, and is precisely why Brave New Word’s stated aim of providing a “collaborative examination of the zeitgeist” is possible. For example, during the performance of Lucy Atkinson’s Obits – an amusing depiction of an obituary writer, Keith (Akbar Kuthar), asking his colleague, Steve (Greg Baxter), to write a eulogy for him – one’s mind was automatically drawn back to the eulogy for the unappreciated artist in Dead Artists are Better, which then helped to add an extra dimension to Steve’s declaration that he enjoys working writing obituaries because in them “you always see the best in people”. This is just one of many examples of the unintentional intertextuality that appeared between these pieces, and no doubt every individual member of the audience will have picked up their own examples. As these pieces interact with each other, what emerges is indeed a collaborative exploration of the given theme, rather than simply a set of fifteen distinct pieces of writing.
The role of audience interpretation in Legacy: What We Leave Behind is also illustrated by the way in which the pieces of writing gradually string together in one’s mind to form a unifying narrative. This, however, cannot be put down solely to interpretation: especially towards the end of the event these pieces were arranged carefully to bring out an overarching message. In the second half, Paul Gallantry’s What We Leave Behind and Owen Morgan’s Mammy Earth introduced a comic take on future generations discovering artefacts from our civilisation. Both these pieces – the former through a professor leading an archaeological dig and the latter through the crew of a Star Trek-esque spaceship discovering an old Earth radio transmission – drew attention to how what we leave behind may not be what we’d want: in the examples of these plays we have been reduced to Tesco bags and recordings of Mrs Brown’s Boys. But while What We Leave Behind and Mammy Earth play well on the comedy in this, the pieces placed at the conclusion of Legacy: What We Leave Behind took a starker look at the realities.
After leaving the stage having played the commander in Mammy Earth, Orla Sanders came back on to deliver Amy Sutton’s powerful poem Nothing Besides Remains. As deep notes played quietly over the speakers creating a sombre atmosphere around the room, the words of the poem explored the apocalyptic possibilities of our current actions on this planet. The comedy of What We Leave Behind was gone as the audience heard how “Professors will study plastic / And chart our mass-produced extinction” and that “We will be survived by our synthetics”. Playing throughout on Shelley’s 1818 poem Ozymandias, Nothing besides Remains ends with an instruction to engrave the famous words, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” on items as banal as plastic straws, as these will be here long after we have rotted away. In terms of the intertextuality created by Brave New Word’s events, it is almost too perfect that the titles What We Leave Behind and Nothing Besides Remains can be seen as a question and its answer when set alongside each other.
Ed Firth stepped onto the stage amid the poingnant atmosphere created by Nothing Besides Remains to deliver the final piece of the evening: Aaron Southall’s This is What You Get. A fitting end to Legacy: What We Leave Behind, Firth’s monologue started from the same hopeless feeling left by Nothing Besides Remains, but built up into an invocation for action. Being alive right now, it is made clear that we get a fractured political situation, we “get freedom of speech represented by Katie Hopkins”, we “get special effects where there used to be storylines”, and we “get U2’s new album whether [we] like it or not”. But This is What You Get develops from its early rant and shows a self awareness which is important when attending events like Brave New Word: “You get audiences who already agree with what you’re saying. You get speeches like this one which point out all the problems but offer no solutions.” Far from an invitation to complain about our lot, This is What You Get encourages its audience to try and make a difference. At the piece’s close we are told that “You get to fight. You get to fix it.” I suppose if we do want to leave something behind other than Tesco bags and straws inscribed with nineteenth century poetry, then that’s what we’ll have to do.
If you want to find out more about Brave New Word, then have a look here.