Monday, 18 August 2014

Common Wealth - No Guts, No Heart, No Glory

Sandy's Boxing Gym in Craigmillar might not know what hits it this week
when Common Wealth Theatre Company move their new show in there for its
Edinburgh Festival Fringe run. No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, after all,
isn't a typical look at the power and the glory of one to one combat
inside the squared circle. Evie Manning's production of Aisha Zia's
script is not only about women boxers, but Muslim women boxers who also
happen to be champions.

“It all stems from Our Glass House,” Manning says of Common Wealth's
previous Edinburgh show, a site-specific piece about domestic abuse
performed in an empty house in Wester Hailes. “After we did it, we had
a lot of conversations about representations of women onstage, and we
decided that we wanted to focus our next piece on strong role models
for women and what they can achieve.”

With Zia also keen to do a piece based around young Asian women,
Manning somewhat fortuitously met a Muslim neighbour in Bradford who
was a boxer.

“That really challenged my expectations about why I should be surprised
that she's a boxer,” says Manning. “Then I discovered there were two
national womens boxing champions from Bradford who were Muslim, and
they both ended up getting involved in the project, which fitted
perfectly.

“Presentations of Muslims on TV or in the theatre are usually about
extremism, or about women staying at home. We worked with young Muslim
men and women, and asked them how they thought people saw them, and the
answer that came up most was that that they thought most people thought
they were terrorists. How do you change that perception? We wanted to
do something to show Muslim women in a different light, and show that
they could be inspirational and become role models.”

In this respect, No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is a kind of flipside to
Our Glass House. Based on real life experiences, Zia's text and
Manning's production transformed these into a series of up close and
personal vignettes performed simultaneously across each room in the
house, with some spilling up or down the stairs and criss-crossing each
other. However impressionistic its rendering, witnessing the play in
such close proximity made for a devastating experience, and when its
final scenes tumbled out onto the streets, it was almost a relief to
follow it outside.

“We want the audience to be active,” says Manning, “so we have to try
and say something to how the audience is feeling, and respond to the
building we're working in as well.”

The Common Wealth aesthetic has been developed since the company formed
as a loose-knit collective of artists in 2008.

“We were very DIY,” says Manning, “like little punks just taking over
abandoned buildings and transforming them, putting on big-scale shows,
political, ambitious epics that were a bit wilder than we are now.”

These early works included taking over Bristol's old courtroom for The
Ups and Downs of the Town of Brown, a large-scale reimagining of
Bertolt Brecht's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganay. Common
Wealth also moved into a disused zip factory in London's east end for
An Indecent Incident, a riotous, vodka-fuelled take on Dostoyevsky's A
Nasty Story. Since then, the company's reckless spirit may still be
intact, but they have honed things somewhat.

“By the time we got to do Our Glass House we were a bit more mature,”
is how Manning puts it, “and found that we wanted to do something about
social change, and wondered how we could apply all this stuff we'd
learnt to doing that.”

By Manning's own admission, Our Glass House, which toured to other
cities in the UK, was “a game-changer. It was site-specific, but more
importantly we learnt how to work with people who lived on the street
we were working on. Taking things out to Craigmillar or Wester Hailes
rather than regular venues is a very deliberate choice, and is part of
us trying to do theatre differently.

“We had this amazing relationship with the people in Wester Hailes,
where they can feel left out of the Fringe, but where it's important
that they're part of it too. The boxing community as well have been
amazing. Any gym we approached have been totally up for it, and want to
promote womens' boxing.”

In some ways, Common Wealth are a refreshingly vital throwback to what
fringe theatre used to be like, with a messy, anti-establishment and
unashamedly socialist ethos at the company's core. This should be made
even more explicit in the company's next work.

Commissioned by National Theatre Wales, Nationalisation! is a
community-based project which asks participants in Merthyr, South
Wales, to imagine they have reclaimed control of all public services
from private hands to run them collectively. As with Our Glass House
and No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, this promises to go beyond polemic to
make its point.

“It's an experience and an event,” according to Manning. “It's the
emotional journey that's the important thing. There'll be lasers and a
powerful sound score in No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, so it really feels
like a gig. There's a narrative thread that runs through it, but I'm
more interested in audiences going away with a brand new energy.”

No Guts, No Heart, No Glory, Sandy's Boxing Gym, Castleview Community
Centre, Craigmillar, August 18-25, various times.
www.commonwealththeatre.co.uk

The Herald, August 18th 2014


ends

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