Adrian Jackson writes:

In the second week of ‘lockdown’, we started working on an experiment with a group of 10 Cardboard Citizens members, performing a Zoom reading of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, which is a barely fictionalised account of the plague in 1664, from the eyes of a person identified only as H.F. in the book. Defoe’s account, published in 1722, clearly draws heavily on contemporary accounts, including possibly his uncle Henry Foe, who was a saddler like the narrator. It seemed an irresistible coincidence that the frontispiece of the book declares itself as written by a Citizen, living in Whitechapel – which is of course where Cardboard Citizens is based, though our premises are closed at present, and all of us are operating from home or hostel.

When planning activity through lockdown, we were very cognisant of the fact that many Members would not have good access to the internet in this period, and have been careful to create other arts offers and activities which do not depend on having wifi or a smartphone. We have also endeavoured to widen participation by supporting Members with credit for their internet and technical support so they could take part in the project.

We gathered for our first artistic Zoom in late March, piecing our way through Defoe’s text and using the experiences and events he relates as a trigger for discussion of how each of us is dealing with the lockdown we find ourselves in. Participants have been encouraged to keep their own ’Journal of the Covid-19 Year’, as we reflect on what is the same and what is different during these two pandemics, in the same town 350 odd years later. I felt that to have something external to reflect upon would be a more stimulating approach than simply going directly to our own experiences, and perhaps might enable us to speak of more difficult subjects such as grief and deprivation with greater ease.

It has been a very fruitful project so far, and we are looking to extend and develop it into a year-long durational project involving many people and many different modes of performance. As well as the ten pioneering Members who have taken what is effectively the first stage in a long relay race (the book is quite long and we want to include as much of it as possible), we have invited guest readings from friends and supporters, such as David Morrissey and Rory Kinnear, who have taken the opportunity to meet Members on line at the same time as sharing their experience and knowledge of dealing with archaic texts; in this sense, like many of our projects, the workshop is working towards several of our goals at once – the production of a significant piece of collaborative theatre-making, combining contemporary and historical accounts with music and images from both times, which can also provide a space for individual skills development and self-expression for our Members and a meeting ground with supporters. Our producer for this project, Kiri Grant, and I have also been able follow up with practical and moral support for individuals when issues have been raised in the context of the sessions.

Already we have noticed so many overlaps with the time we are in: the general fear and uncertainty, the attempts by the authorities to control the spread of disease, the proliferation of rules and regulation, the mis-information, the privileging of the better-off who were able to flee to their country homes, the cashing-in by all sorts of charlatans and con-men – all these things span both periods, simply reappearing now in modernised forms. We have discussed the 5G conspiracy theories, the space and quiet of the locked-down world against the restriction of being stuck in a room, the loss of friends, the blaming of nations – you name it.

As a nice early marker for the project, on 2nd May, 11th anniversary date of the death of our great friend and inspiration Augusto Boal, we performed an extract of our work to some 100 people in at least 20 countries on a zoom conference call with Theatre of the Oppressed practitioners from around the world. A woman in India commented, have we learnt so little? A woman from Spain commented that the person whose English she best understood was our only Polish participant! Cockney is another language for much of the world, just as Defoe’s script has sometimes caused us to reach for our dictionaries – but in both cases, the general drive and energy of the text and performance carries us through.

We are pressing forward with this project and will update further as it goes along. The eventual product is likely to be a mix of film and performance – if we are ever allowed back into a theatre; if not, we will produce it for online distribution, later this year.

Adrian Jackson, Artistic Director
4 May 2020