More than bricks and mortar: The Answer to Everything, by Streetwise Opera

A groundbreaking project by pioneering charity Streetwise OperaThe Answer to Everything can take two forms: a 75-minute full performance, with live elements as well as film, which premiered to great acclaim at the BFI earlier this year; and the 40-minute, film-only version, which was screened as part of this year’s Tête à Tête Festival at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith.

the answer to everything

After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, and so on 

have found that none of these finally satisfy… – what remains?

Nature remains.

This beautiful quotation by Walt Whitman, shown in the film’s first frames, is in itself a microcosm of the plot.  Business comes up with the idea which is hailed as “The Answer to  Everything” (the “Everything” in question being the problem of homelessness). The idea is to clear pieces of brownfield waste land and synthesise all the rubbish material into bricks which can then build new houses. People can be employed at every stage of the process, and finally will be housed (at which point, of course, both the project and jobs will be over, but no one seems to have thought that far, caught up in the marvel of the idea). Politics invites business to trial its idea on public land – councils vie for the chance to host a project on their turf. Conviviality builds among the besuited middle-managers, and there’s even an extraordinary moment of love, as all believe they have found The Answer To Everything. But something has been overlooked: among the forgotten wastelands, where wild buddleias bloom, Nature already lives. And inside the bricks, tiny specks of seed surrounded by sub-organic matter begin to germinate: soon, the bricks split uselessly to reveal tiny, living green shoots.  We ignore nature at our peril.  And we ignore people’s real needs at our peril (when someone points out the final rooms will be tiny, a delegate harrumphs, in a moment of brilliantly observed callousness: “Well, all they need is a sofa, a telly, and a microwave for their mash!” Hardly all one needs to rebuild a shattered life).

The sheer achievement of this project, and of Streetwise Opera (who celebrated their tenth anniversary by making this film, a process which took two years), is astounding. The cast of 120 homeless people were taken from 11 Streetwise groups around Great Britain, in what can only be described as a miracle of commitment from all sides. Rupert Jones (director, assisted by Emma Bernard) said the cast were the best group of people he had ever worked with, “Much easier than actors”. The premiere of the integrated performance at the BFI in April 2013 received rapturous reviews, including four stars in the Times and the Guardian.

After being shown the film aspect of the original performance (produced by Matt Peacock and Jess Gormley) at Tête à Tête, we were shown a further “Making of” short which conveyed a thrilling sense of how exciting, involving and exhilarating the full performance must be. I can’t wait to see the full version, not least because it includes more examples of new writing (the film contains new commissions by Gavin Bryars, Orlando Gough and Emily Hall, alongside music by Britten, Handel and Vivaldi). The film itself is beautifully shot (by Matthew Beecroft and Denzil Armour-Brown), with a script which joyfully visits every piece of business jargon and civic Newspeak going (created by Emma Barnard and Joanna Coates). The musical highlight for me was the fabulous Lascia ch’io pianga, sung with passion by Elizabeth Watts, which I must admit has quickly made its way into my iTunes library, and you simply can never fail with Zadok The Priest, which was as electrifying as ever.

Sadly, however, the film has been dubbed with rather a heavy hand (why?), and unfortunately doesn’t work well as a convincing standalone piece. I left the cinema feeling that this film needs the cast, the extra content – and an active, interacting audience – to really bring it back to glorious life.

As anyone who has ever spent time with the homeless will know, there are two things which really matter: looking, and listening. Looking someone in the eye, when thousands of people have walked past them without a glance that day; and listening to what they have to say, when so many people (and politicians, and media mouthpieces) deliberately ignore the sometimes uncomfortable story they have to tell us about how they slipped so far through the cracks which, in our society, we all like to pretend don’t really exist. Perpetuating the myth that “all” homeless people are mentally ill, drug-addled, or otherwise “imperfect” only serves to stifle their voices further. I remember once my boss saying to me (as I left his smart City office to spend the night in a homeless shelter), “What can you learn from losers like that?” To him, their failure in life had caused their suffering: the successful simply had no need to understand the position of such people. And yet, to me, the homeless people in my shelter were not losers, but survivors. Of course, they had lost many things: their homes, their families, their possessions, their money; but despite all that, they had not lost their memories, their character, their ability to look me in the eye and tell me about their day. Their life was destroyed, but it was not over. This is not reassuring optimism: if anything, the idea of life continuing without the people we hold dear, the possessions we cherish, and the freedom money brings is a far bleaker prospect than life simply ending. But these people were brave enough to face that bleak prospect, and persevere. I learnt much from losers like that.

The full version of The Answer to Everything gives us, as an audience, that precious opportunity to look this cast of extraordinarily talented and committed people in the eye, to listen to what they have to say, and to share time with them as individuals and artists – not as losers. For that reason, for them, and for us, the full integrated performance is the best way to experience this brilliant, beautiful project. The canned version can only give us the merest, tantalising glimpse.

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