A lot has happened since Two Destination Language first toured an early version of Manpower in 2015. It was the day the result of the Brexit referendum came in when the international performance company’s core duo of Alister Lownie and Katherina Radeva decided to take stock of a show which had originally been about gender and what might now be dubbed toxic masculinity.
“We knew we had to re-write it,” says Radeva, the Bulgarian artist who formed Two Destination Language with Lownie in 2010. “We were in Portugal making another show, and we knew we were touring Manpower, and then when the result of Brexit came in, it seemed connected somehow.”
By a quirk of scheduling, the opening night of Lownie and Radeva’s revised take on Manpower happened to fall in January 2017 on the day after Donald Trump was elected as 45th president of the United States. Again, while this was an accident of timing, the resonances of Two Destination Language’s show couldn’t have been more current.
“You could feel that everyone was completely shocked about what happened,” Radeva remembers. “It was the same after Brexit. People didn’t expect it.”
Manpower begins in 1975, the year of the UK referendum to decide whether it should stay in the European Community, then known as the Common Market, which the Conservative government under prime minister Ted Heath had led the country into two years before. With each decade that follows sound-tracked by records from their era played on vinyl, Lownie’s character indulges in manual labour while Radeva’s shares her observations of the British white male.
Out of this comes a gradual history of industrial decline and the calculated destruction of old certainties regarding full employment. This collapse resulted in strikes, mass unemployment and a brutal ideological response from those in power who closed down anything unprofitable, destroying entire communities as they went.
“When industrial work like mining and ship-building was taken away from men, a lot of them lost a sense of belonging and sense of purpose,” Radeva observes. “Out of that came various parts of the population who feel that they don’t belong, and who feel threatened by immigrants.
“These men feel like they’ve got to find a new sense of purpose, and that’s not easy. I don’t even think the government thought about that. Even with Tony Blair, that was all about making money in the City, but at the same time there was a whole load of people ending up on benefits who felt undervalued and had no place to turn.”
Manpower also charts a rise in eastern European migrants who are all too often scape-goated as taking jobs from men born in the UK. Rather than beat people over the head with angry polemics, Lownie and Radeva serve up a more playful response.
“I play this dumb east European who declares that she came to Britain to find a good man,” says Radeva. “She thinks she knows everything because of what she reads in various newspapers, and she now thinks she’s British because she’s been here twenty years, and that Brexit won’t affect her.
“When we were writing Manpower we very much wanted to juxtapose this east European woman with a British man who goes on about taking back our country and believes all the scare-mongering about immigration.”
The response to this has been different depending on the age of the audience.
“People aged thirty-six and over really get the scepticism in the work,” says Radeva, “but sometimes younger people aren’t quite sure if we’re being serious or not.”
The current tour of Manpower will be the second show by Two Destination Language to appear in Scotland this year. The first, Fallen Fruit, was seen on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and looked at Bulgaria in the 1980s and 1990s and parallels with today in the EU following the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Previous shows have similarly focused on how nations and cultures interact in ways that favour visual playfulness over polemic. For the Scottish dates of the current Manpower tour, Lownie and Radeva have tweaked their show some more.
“We’ve inserted something which acknowledges that the majority of people who voted in Scotland did so to remain in Europe,” says Radeva. “Even so, the closer you get to March 2019 when the UK leaves Europe the more desperate and uncomfortable it feels, because so much about what will happen is still unknown, but it feels more real every day.”
Beyond Brexit, as Two Destination Language set out on their current tour of Manpower, things continue to happen. Radeva mentions how the show’s brief run in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago coincided with the hearing in relation to Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination for the US Supreme Court in which accusations of serious sexual assault were levelled against him.
Closer to home, last weekend on the streets of London, a march by the so-called Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a group that appears to be largely made up of white middle-aged men who say they are protesting against all form of extremism, descended into violence. Meanwhile, some commentators have taken issue with the appointment of a woman, both as the new Dr Who and as the new host of BBC Radio 2’s coveted Breakfast Show slot. Just this week, actor Daniel Craig’s masculinity was loudly challenged by Piers Morgan simply for carrying his baby in a papoose.
“The whole Kavanaugh thing was going on,” says Radeva, “and it just felt like everything Manpower was talking about was being played out at the same time.”
As Radeva makes clear, however, there is an all-too human side to the conflicts depicted in Manpower that highlights some of their absurdities.
“It’s not only about the politics,” she says. “Politics is the base of it, but there’s a lot of fun that comes from the ridiculous relationship between these two people, and that’s something we can all relate to.”
Manpower, Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock, October 24; Platform, Glasgow, October 25; Square Chapel Arts centre, Halifax, November 8; Attenburgh Arts, Leicester, November 9; The Civic, Barnsley, November 10; Cambridge Junction, November 21; Eastgate Theatre, Peebles, November 28.
The Herald, October 18th 2018