They may not have the budget of the RSC or the swagger of the Almedia but they are one of the most necessary theatre companies operating in the UK today.
Slung Low make bold work, mostly participatory, and they are also genuine participants in the daily lives of their local community in Holbeck in Leeds where they are based. They run an old working men’s club. They run a community college offering courses demanded and needed by local people. Right at this moment they are the lead organisation for coordinating community care during the pandemic in the Holbeck area of Leeds, working in close consultation with the Leeds City Council.
They are both artful and useful. Often at the same time, and it makes you wonder what it would be like if every theatre and theatre company in the country took a leaf out of Slung Low’s book, and were fully integrated in their local community and seen by all as a crucial part of it.
Camelot at Sheffield Theatres. Photo by Mark Douet
Slung Low is not just multi-purpose, it is also multi-platform. It has been inventive about not just expanding what it is a theatre company might be and do but how it delivers and distributes the work it makes. The latest piece is a short film called The Good Book that continues the story started in Camelot: the Shining City made with Sheffield People’s Theatre and Sheffield Theatres back in 2015. That was a show in which mythology rubbed shoulders with the future.
The first production from Leeds People’s Theatre and featuring a 100 members alongside a community cast, The Good Book is written by long time Slung Low collaborator, James Philips, and is set in a near future and an England teetering on the brink of civil war. The rebellion that put Queen Bear on the throne has turned to authoritarianism and soldiers on the streets who jump on dissent. The main opposition comes from the Galahadists, fundamentalists who want to burn books. But what about those like Avalon (Riana Duce) who feel caught between these extremes and seek the middle ground?
Riana Duce as Avalon and Angus Imrie as Geraint in The Good Book
Are revolutions always betrayed, what are the responsibilities of the individual, and how can hope be found in the wreckage? These are some of the questions posed in The Good Book. If Shining City draw on Arthurian legend, then The Good Book references Milton’s Paradise Lost and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound as it considers struggle and endurance against the most hopeless of odds. Prometheus was written in the response to the failures of the French revolution and Shelley’s observation that one despot is simply replaced by another tyrant. How can the people ever achieve justice?
In many ways The Good Book is as flawed itself as any revolution and human revolutionary. While it is beautifully filmed, using the decaying urban landscapes and civic buildings of the city of Leeds to impressive effect, it can’t quite pack everything it needs to into 30 minutes. It feels like an intriguing episode that requires continuation, deeper characterisations and wider frames. I suspect that it will be, and that The Good Book represents more than a teaser and more another way in for audiences to join a story began in Camelot:” Shining City which will, I imagine, be continued as part of Leeds 2023, a major arts festival connecting the city through culture. I look forward to it.
Who knows? By then, in the wake of the many societal changes that will surely follow in the wake of Covid-19 we may have experienced our own revolution. Or maybe like the Arthurian knights of old we will still be seeking that holy grail: how to make the world a more just and fairer place.
You can watch The Good Book from 1pm on Friday 1 May on Slung Low's website