The threefold cord is not so quickly broken – Heartlanders, the community play for Birmingham of 1989


David Edgar, the co-writer of Heartlands, along with Stephen Bill and Anne Devlin

For anyone who has been engaged in theorizing about community arts over the last decade or so the very notion of what constitutes community has been one of the key elements of the debate. Writers such as Grant Kester, Martha Fleming, and Miwon Kwon have dug deep into the contingency of the term ‘community’ and offered all manner of terms for ways in which a group of individuals who end up compromising a collective may be constituted, self-realized and externally defined, and how these different understandings impact upon the relationship between the artist, the community and the work that is made.

Kwon’s ‘One Thing After Another’ (a text that deals primarily with American public art and its shift from the creation of sited larger scale visual art pieces to dialogical works made with and in communities as the site of the ‘public’) is an attempt to begin to shape a practice which might get beyond the inherent dangers lurking in the ‘idealised spectre of community’ , a spectre which leads, often inadvertently, into avenues that prevent a genuinely provocative investigation into self and collective identity. For Kwon, along with Kester and Fleming, unless this notion of ‘community’ is challenged then the work that is produced may continue to exhibit the ‘typical essentializing process in community-based art: the isolation of a single point of commonality to define a community – whether a genetic trait, a set of social concerns, or a geographical territory’.

For Kwon there is ‘a need to imagine alternative possibilities of togetherness and collective action’ and she finds inspiration in the work of Jean-Luc Nancy, whose work on the philosophical theorizing of community has become influential in the community arts field. For Nancy ‘there is no communion, there is no common being, but there is being in common’ and ‘the question should be the community of being and not the being of community’. And for Kwon this means that the challenge ‘is to figure out a way beyond and through the impossibility of community … to suggest the impossibility of total consolidation, wholeness and unity’, and to ‘suggest that such an impossibility is a welcome premise’.

I offer this very brief and simplistic introduction into this idea as a preface to an examination of the Birmingham community play of 1989, Heartlanders, written by a trio of playwrights (in itself an interesting and unusual process) – Stephen Bill, Anne Devlin and David Edgar (who recently offered this interesting provocation). I make the connection between Kwon’s challenge and this play because Bill, Devlin and Edgar were tasked not with writing a community play for a village or a town, where the myth of some kind of homogenised community or at least of a number of competing social groups that fuel the narrative might be dramatically maintained, but in a city of a million people – where to even attempt to create any kind of commonality or coherence must be virtually impossible. What is so impressive about this text is the way that they face this challenge head on, and in doing so offer some fascinating insights into how writers may approach the challenge of writing a community play, as well as producing an alternative vision of what a community play may look like.

Heartlanders was staged at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre in October 1989 and unlike most large cast community plays written around that time is not set in a previous historical period but in ‘the autumn of 1989’. It is a play that defines the city not, as many historically based community plays do, through the conflicts between social classes defined and animated most usually through their work, but through the individuals and the small units of family that live there and amongst the disparate small businesses and enterprises – taxi drivers, restaurant owners, hairdressers – that occupy this post-industrial landscape. It is a play about strangers and chance encounters and one in which the driving force of the narrative is the search not for community but for family or partnership. This is a search that will bring a host of disparate characters together as their lives become as intermingled as Spaghetti Junction, the image of which is on the cover of the NHB publication of the text (sadly now out of print although the odd second hand copy is still available; and thanks to David Edgar for my copy).

This is community as a chaotic encounter; individuals colliding into each other and sometimes sticking together; sometimes cognisant and sometimes oblivious to the impact their meetings have. All taking place in a city that cannot be clearly seen or described; there is no real sense of ‘Birmingham’, rather a series of spaces and places in which encounters are had and relationships are developed and defined. And yet whilst the city is not one that we can easily ascribe any sense of character to, its locations and the characters who occupy and find themselves within them, become ultimately inseparable.

Heartlanders begins with departures – of the three characters whose journeys through Birmingham we will follow through the play. Aan is flying from his home country of India to find a woman, Katya, who he met five years ago on the ‘Beach of Shells’ and who he hopes to walk with  ‘along a beach in Birmingham’. The other two characters, Tom, a middle aged man leaving from Wales and Margaret, who is travelling from Oswestry, do not yet reveal what they are looking for.

From departures we move, literally, to arrivals; specifically at Digbeth Bus Station where our characters, along with a host of others (including Johan, a ‘central European music student’, who we will encounter throughout the piece as he makes a tortuous journey to a school of music that no-one seems able to clearly direct him to) find themselves immediately thrust into a fluid landscape of comings and goings populated by a diverse range of peoples (including a male voice choir and a Polish dance troupe). Tom finds himself being approached by Rose Devine, a young Irish woman who is trying to escape the clutches of a group of nuns who have paid for her coach ticket (a ruse that Rose has cooked up, she is in fact waiting for someone to arrive from Liverpool) and does so by pretending to recognise Tom as her ‘Uncle Bobby’. Through the simple act of naming Rose appears to have created a surrogate family member – the first instance of what will be a central theme of the creation of alternatively defined family units –  as Tom, realising that Rose is down on her luck, pregnant and waiting for someone who appears to have abandoned her, takes her under his wing and pays for Rose to stay the night at a hotel.

Margaret meanwhile finds herself in conversation with Joel, who has missed his bus to Heathrow from where he was planning to fly to Jamaica (‘My racial home. My roots’), and persuades him to help her in the search for her daughter Sandra who has left home without leaving any forwarding address, suggesting that she may have ended up in ‘the company … of tramps, and punks, and junkies … presumably you are intimately acquainted with … such people’.  Aan, with the help of a friendly taxi driver, finds his way to Katya’s family only to find out that she has also moved out of the family home and into the home of a man that they do not know; something which they have categorically not consented to.

And so the searching begins. Margaret and Joel move through the formal and informal social support landscape of the city (cafes, advice bureaus, hostels, pizzerias) gathering an ever expanding collection of Joel’s friends on the way, all of whom have advice as to where a young woman in Birmingham may end up. Tom at least has a telephone number. As the phone rings in old flame Patricia’s flat, and Tom leaves a message for the woman that has initiated his journey, Patricia is bewildered to hear this voice from the past (‘I left home over thirty years ago’) whilst Terry (her boss) is amazed to discover that she is Welsh, having obviously lost (or hidden) all traces of her roots.

This is a world in which the social spaces are not those of the union hall, the factory, or the church but the smaller units provided by the modern service industries. The incidental characters that we meet are not represented as the ‘workers’ or ‘family groupings’ that are used to assimilate large casts in so many community plays, but are very much individuals whose identity is created as much through their responses to the commercial world that surrounds them (there is a detailed discussion over a pizza order from Joel’s group of friends) and by a sense that they are all trying to cope with the day to day realities of city life than by anything else. This is not a coherent community at all; it is one that is being created, most obviously through the challenge of finding a missing woman (who has removed herself from the community that she previously inhabited). And when Joel discovers that the missing woman is in possession of Margaret’s credit card it is obvious that the search has become more difficult for ‘if she got access, as it were, to Access … (T)hen she could be staying, shopping , bopping anywhere’. (A good example of how the most recent past – here the early days of easy money – can often seem like the most alien landscape). And so when the large scale group scenes do erupt, with the First Act culminating in the largest scene so far, the collective is not defined by trade or battle or religion or social struggle but by its involvement in a Clint Eastwood Lookalike Contest and ‘a fashion parade from Hot Sox of Moseley’ at the Wild West Night at the Canopy Club.

By the beginning of Act Two Aan has found Katya, who is now calling herself Kathy as identities continue to reshuffled. When Katya introduces Aan to Rita, a health visitor, as coming from India, Rita replies ‘You’re not from Nottingham or Leicester’ leading Aan to reply ‘(fed up) I’m really Indian’. This is a thread that runs throughout the piece as the expectations that characters have of each other are continually undermined and re-evaluated, their apparent external definition being continually counteracted or contradicted the moment that further investigation or dialogue is had. The minute that a position is stated, a belief held, an attitude formed by a character is the minute that these can be changed with contact and dialogue and the experience of others and otherness. It is only through direct individual to individual encounter that change is made possible. Even Margaret, who has spent the play offending people by blithely revealing her prejudices, realises that this odyssey has led to her ‘(M)eeting people, going places that I never thought existed. And perhaps I wish I had’’.

The question of roots and belonging that has been ticking away throughout the play now comes right to the surface as Joel’s friend Ernest, a tramp, suggests that the place to look to find the missing daughter is a hairdressers, because ‘somebody whose hair you’re cutting … you get to know ‘em’. Joel realises that Ernest is right: ‘It’s her roots. It’s Sandra’s roots … Her hair. And how she wouldn’t let the roots go. And so she will almost certainly have had it done. And paid, of course, by Access’.

Rose meanwhile continues to show Tom the city, having persuaded him to stay long enough to visit the upcoming computer exhibition at the NEC that Patricia will be attending (as revealed in her answerphone message). Aan is trying to woo Katya, who he has found with the help of her sister Pushba (who has a crush on Aan). Meeting Katya in the same park (at the same time) as Margaret, Joel and Ernest are there Aan gives her a present of a ‘mobile of tinkling white shells in the shape of hearts’ from the beach that Katya came to when she visited Aan on her holiday. But for Katya this is not such a happy memory, recalling that when she went to India she was hoping to be ‘lost in a sea of brown faces’ but that ‘I stood out there as much as I do here’; and that ‘I knew then there was no perfect place – where I could be happy. (That) I would find it with someone’. She tells Aan that he should return to India, and asks him to come and meet her partner, ‘Martin Murphy’.

Tom and Rose go to the Exhibition Centre, (where all of the computer systems being displayed are named after a fruit) and Patricia reveals that life is going well for her as long as she doesn’t ‘slip to 90% of my target’ and that ‘I’m lucky, I don’t need sleep’. Tom is unable to make the romantic gesture that may be required and Rose’s attempts to egg him on are cut short by labour pains which lead to Patricia and Tom having to carry her on a chair to hospital where she is seen by – Martin Murphy. Patricia tells Tom of the decision for her departure from their Welsh hometown, that whilst Tom saw the close knit community as being friendly, for her ‘(E)veryone used to live in everyone else’s kitchens. Just walk in the back door … I didn’t find it friendly. I couldn’t breathe’. As Rose is told that she needs to rest she calls on her ‘aunty’ to allow her to stay for a few nights in her flat which Patricia reluctantly agrees to. ‘It’s why I came back’, Tom tells Patricia; ‘I’ve never forgotten this person who really cared’. It is as though through this encounter with a stranger (Rose) that Patricia’s humanity, which was being strangled by the pressures of her job, has begun to be rekindled. Again it is the individual to individual encounter that leads to the potential for self-realisation.

With the threads of the play beginning to tighten, we are now presented with both ends of the lens as a panoramic view of the city that Patricia’s flat provides is counterpointed with the kicking of the new life inside Rose’s stomach that her new ‘relatives’ listen to through a stethoscope that Rose has ‘borrowed from the hospital’. Johan, our literally wandering musician, ‘passes by at ground level’.

The hairdresser idea meanwhile seems to have worked and Margaret and Joel finally have an address for a ‘friend’ of Margaret’s daughter who takes them to her allotment, another of the socially constructed outdoor spaces that the play occupies, along with the parks and the zoo. At the allotment Sandra reveals that this friend, Rita, is actually her birth mother, a mother that Margaret had told her had died in childbirth. Again the past has competing definitions, only this time it is because Sandra has been lied to, ‘About who I am. About where I come from’.

As some form of resolution is reached Margaret explains how ‘When I arrived here, at the bus station, there were three people, who had come here, to the city, to look for people who they’d lost. And I’d really like to know, I really would, what the others found. Because I have found what I was looking for. But I’ve also found – found out what it was. And although it was … It wasn’t. If you see what I mean. But I have to tell you, what I’ve found, what I’ve found out I was looking for, I could not have found, without … Understanding that the threefold cord is not so quickly broken’.

This is the journey that Margaret, and the audience, have ultimately made; a move towards an understanding and appreciation of the importance of human relationships, and that these human relationships may take any form at all, being neither weaker or stronger for the form that they take. Margaret began the play with a family that had fractured. By the end of the play – through the help of another kind of family, an unexpected one provided by the city and one which has allowed her to re-imagine herself – she has become part of a larger family unit; one that has reconstituted her previous familial elements through expansion and change.

We now move to the end of the play, a Diwali gathering at a temple where Katya/Kathy is explaining the rituals to Martin (‘I feel quite at home. All these candles remind me of my childhood’). As she finally confronts her parents (who are with Aan) disagreements are resolved and Katya is to have a ‘new place in her parents lives’ that is ‘Not too near’ and yet ‘Not too far’.

A procession is formed, the final collective image of the play, ‘joined by performers with more candles, bells and lanterns. The Hindu music is changing too: we recognise the Coventry Carol. In short, the ritual of the Diwalli is turning into Christmas’. Which allows Heartlanders to end as a Nativity play as the main characters, narrating about themselves, each sum up their journeys:

JOEL.              And as Joel finally decided that you’re ultimately closer to the place you love in than the place from whence you came …

PUSHBA.        So someone else …

AAN.               Somewhere in Birmingham …

MARGARET   Was proving nonetheless that it can be pretty damned important where you’re born

Patricia, Tom, Rose and the baby ‘become aware that they are in the centre of attention, of the procession and the audience. Like a rabbit caught in the headlamps of a car, they are frozen into a state of confused but polite bemusement: a successful businesswoman, an elderly Welshman, a young woman he picked up at a bus station, her three-day old child, in the middle of the city, on Christmas Eve, surrounded by the rising strains of a favourite carol, and then, finally, by the darkness’.

Heartlanders is a play in which the idea of a continually evolving and re-evolving community, one in which it appears there is no common being but plenty of being in common, is revealed. But here it is not communities that are being reshaped as much as  families. Ravi (Katya’s mother) has always wanted a son and now has a surrogate in Aan. Katya is to have a new husband; Tom is now Uncle to Rose, and has a baby to help look after with his potential new partner and Rose’s ‘Aunty’ Pat; Joel has ripped up his ticket to stay in a city that he was earlier bemoaning to rejoin his family of friends that may perhaps now be extended to include Margaret; Margaret has a whole new familial situation to deal with.

This is a play in which, unlike so many of the community plays of that time, there are no strangers from out of town who confront and impact upon (and sometimes create) a collective community ethos. Here everyone has the potential to be a stranger to everyone else, or, through chance or design, to become something other. Alongside the core cast, whose stories interweave and bounce off of each other, we see a large cast of characters who quickly reveal tiny aspects of their lives before they are whisked off stage, to reappear again in new locations and configurations, sometimes aware of each other and sometimes not, but all linked somehow to the onward thrust of the story – the search for family and for love. And when family is found it has to be remade or it is reconfigured. Around this shape shifting is the reality of place, a place that is also created by the endless invention and intervention of those who open pizza parlours and hairdressers and feed animals at the zoo. The city – Birmingham – is an amorphous, swirling entity that only comes into focus at any moment through the constellation of the interactions that happen there.

There is one small scene in the play between the ‘yuppie’ Lynn and a hairdresser, Wendy that I think gets to the heart of what Heartlanders is showing. Lynn reveals how bored she is and how ‘the one thing that I really like is getting shot of house and wifery and going out and doing things alone’; an anonymity that the city provides (although when we later see two courting couple pass each other in a park hiding their faces from each other we are reminded that even a city of one million people cannot provide total secrecy). Wendy then alters Lynn’s perception of her (a perception based on her social function) by revealing her knowledge of the post-impressionists and that her father ‘based his stuff on Bonnard’. She then explains to Lynn that ‘when you do someone for a second time, you see the cut. The first cut, from the time before. I always get a real kick from that’.

The city is like an ever changing haircut, in which the shadow of previous cuts are there if you look hard enough but are hidden beneath the ever changing physical and social landscape that allows, and is the battleground for, a constant evolution and re-imagining both of what it means to be an individual, and what it means to be part of a community.