TEXT BY Zakiya Mckenzie
DIRECTED & DESIGNED BY David Shearing
30 August - 2 September 2023
Queens Theatre - Hornchurch
31 August, 2023
all images © Zbigniew Kotkiewicz
What will the future of our planet look like? What will it smell like, and will we have learned anything from the past in order to forge a better, safer, and healthier future? New Beginning, is a uniquely immersive theatrical performance piece from Variable Matter & Queen's Theatre, Hornchurch and director/designer David Shearing.
This is a new way of creating immersive theatre that asks the audience to participate by asking them to really focusing on what they are seeing and hearing. The moment before you walk into the theatre, you're asked to turn off your phone—not to silent, but off. This might be a standard practice of the theatre, but once you step into the theatre itself, you realise that there is a lot one needs to focus on, and the idea of notifications going off in your pocket would inevitability cause distractions.
Once you step into the theatre, something powerful overtakes your senses: the noise and doom usually found within the climate debate has been replaced with calmness. The beauty of Shearing's design allows you to let all the words, sounds, and visuals completely overtake you, and the production ensures that you experience everything. You immediately begin to interact with the performance and the performers. That is what New Beginning is—a performance piece that tackles one of the most salient issues of our time not with slogans but through patient reasoning, and the elements of nature have been wonderfully imagined through props, sound and textures, you can almost smell this newer, purer nature.
I was met by Lyra, one of the Humanity performers, who led the audience to their seats and asked me what I imagined the world might look like in a thousand years. Her follow-up question threw me off slightly: What do you think the world will smell like? This was or is something I have never thought about before, and it was at this point that I looked around the theatre properly for the first time. You can't help but feel an emotional pull from seeing groups of young actors—the youth who are to inherit such a toxic planet—talking in depth about the climate with the generation that could have done much more to save and protect it.
"Shearing has created something that is so beautiful, engaging, and transformative that it leaves you feeling a type of guilt for the lack of urgency we have had in dealing with the climate crisis we’re facing."
In the centre of the stage there is a thin line of sand trickling down from the ceiling into a small bowl. It is very hypnotic. Even before the production begins, these visual elements completely draw your attention. New Beginning is wrapped up in a visual symbolism that poses questions while retaining a mystique. The text is richly written by Zakiya Mckenzie and delivered with stunning frankness by Michelle Newell, who both manages to convey this sense of urgency and calm. This is the future. The world has restarted and acquired a new, fresher sense of itself and its purpose. In 1000 years, Shearing supposes, we won’t be in competition with the nature, but we will live in delicate equilibrium with it.
Shearing captures this by rebuilding this lost planet through several chapters: Still Point, Carbon, Roots, Fire, Growth, Breath, and New Beginning. Each chapter is read out in part by the Guide, Newell, or one of the many voices who make up Humanity. This is the first of many important collaborations between mankind and nature, as well as between Shearing's production and the audience. Shearing has created something that is so beautifully engaging, and transformative that it leaves you feeling a type of guilt for the lack of urgency we, individually, have had in dealing with the climate crisis we’re facing. The back and forth between the Guide and Humanity, the latter's youthful voices attuned to the purity and significance of the message adds a profoundness to the production that is quite impactful.
James Bulley's sound design provides depth and soul to the production, which is perfectly complemented by Lab-Meta’s digital projection and Joshua Gadsby’s lighting design. At times, Gadsby's lighting feels like a beating heart; it pulses in a way that makes it come to life, and the way the lighting is used to highlight the life of the audience is inspired.
This isn’t just theatre amplified by soundscapes and visual media; this is performance art at the highest level. Sitting in the audience, one cannot help but become overwhelmed by the originality and thoughtfulness of this production. The acts of audience participation, from the moment we walk into the space, begin a collaboration that is woven into the narrative and that helps to forge a deeper connection with the production, which is vital. The ingenuity that is created here is inspiring, as is the calm, steady, and clear voice that Shearing has used to convey the importance and responsibility we all have in trying to get to this new beginning.