The Royal Court becomes a ‘living newspaper’ complete with musical headlines | Theatre

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From an alleyway, I enter the Royal Court by a side entrance. The theatre has reopened after months of pandemic darkness but audiences are not invited to sit down and watch a show. In fact, the venue is no longer a theatre as we know it – because it has turned itself into a giant newspaper.

The first question is why? And how does theatre correlate to the news, anyway? Both forms are in the storytelling business but one reveals the world through fiction while the other trades in the daily delivery of facts and informed opinions, surely?

It is these clear-cut distinctions that Living Newspaper: A Counter Narrative questions and contests. Once inside, I see it for the massive, maverick, ensemble project that it is: an embodiment of a newspaper that takes over and transforms the entire building. The audience travel through its auditoria, green rooms, backrooms and bowels, in small, socially distanced groups to experience its many parts.

The project was inspired by the radical history of the Federal Theatre Project, a US arts programme in the 1930s designed to employ artists and theatre-makers who were emerging jobless out of the Great Depression. The Royal Court has already created work for more than 200 freelancers and 60 writers. The pieces of the living newspaper are created by collectives of writers and designers who produce weekly “editions” over six weeks with the aim of addressing the issues of our day.

After 20 years of absorbing the jittery energy of various newsrooms, with their anxious scrum of daily ideas meetings and the sudden, frenzied overhaul of news-breaking moments, dramas about newspaper life have always struck me as removed from that reality. But this is not a drama about a newsroom. It is a promenade experience made up of many dynamic elements that – surprisingly – embody something of the energy and spark of a newsroom, wrapped up within performance.

So much to see … Danny Lee Wynter in Living Newspaper. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

We are led into the theatre downstairs, which is the “front page”. Actors stand among the stalls and circle seats with mics while we gaze back at them from the stage in a peculiar reversal of the usual dynamics between audiences and performers. “Locked down,” they sing in a musical number that declares a distrust of government and of facts – a recurring theme across the show – and rehearses soundbites and news snippets about Boris, Covid and “the vaccine”. The performance is powerful, made all the more potent by our centre-stage positioning.

We move around the building to take in everything from a dramatic enactment of a longform article to a weather room, by Chris Thorpe, which is a short but startling installation comprising sand, clocks and an audio recording that speaks in refrains about our finite time on the planet. It is as much a warning about mortality as the dangers of the climate crisis, and it feels both chilling and vital.

A small, low-ceilinged room is filled with exposed wires, battered computers and fuzzing screens that scroll through online and social media news. It is accompanied by a recorded conversation between two women. The piece, by Katherine Soper, is called Con_Troll Room, and explores conspiracy theories. “The queen is in on it,” says one woman. “Everyone’s being watched,” says the other.

The subject of trust is picked a few minutes later, beside the theatre lifts, when an actor speaks about the spread of misinformation in the media and the erosion of faith in truth and facts. What I see and hear invites reflection about the state and value of journalism today: whose voices are we listening to and whose do we choose to ignore? How dynamic can news agendas become and how do we retrieve public trust in the mainstream media from the grasp of populist distrust, political disenchantment and conspiracy theory?

Zainab Hasan in Living Newspaper.
Whose voices are we listening to? … Zainab Hasan in Living Newspaper. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

The tone changes from room to room, and the biggest, most delightful surprise comes in a dark downstairs space fortified by scaffolding and lit up by coloured lights, like a grungy, graffiti-walled version of a Yayoi Kusama installation. The piece, by Nazareth Hassan and Ola Ince, is called Substage, and features an actor (Alexzandra Sarmiento) dancing to rave music, while a DJ (Georgie Fellows) accompanies her on a mic: “oi oi” she shouts out at her single reveller, and then “colonise your genitals”. It is a portal into music subcultures of the queer and marginalised, according to the notes, and it is a joyous experience that captures the madcap colour and creativity of a niche music magazine or perhaps even a quirky Guardian review of a new music scene.

The basement bar is turned into a dating page and has a sparky staged dialogue, by Miriam Battye, between a millennial couple (Zainab Hasan and Ragevan Vasan) who are laying out the terms of their relationship in a very contemporary contract.

There are countless intricate touches: live horoscope readings performed at the back of the bar, poignant obituary installations along the staircase and an agony aunt in the cloakroom. There is so much to see, and so much potentially to miss, that it tempts a second trip.

But in the end, the show is not just about the inner workings of a newspaper but about the inside of a theatre and its accessibility. It demystifies the usually hallowed spaces in a theatre, presenting all of itself to us, from the backstage oil of the engine room to front-of-stage glory. It seems to say that this is not for the privileged few. It belongs to us.

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