Cardboard Citizens is lifting the lid on Home Truths, a season of plays exploring the history of UK housing. Two of the playwrights, Sonali Bhattacharyya and Lin Coghlan, tell us why they’re getting to the stories – and the issues – behind bricks and mortar.
As part of its 25th year celebrations of making work with and for homeless people, Cardboard Citizens has commissioned a group of UK playwrights for Home Truths: An Incomplete History of Housing Told in Nine Plays.
The season features nine new short plays by writers Sonali Bhattacharyya, Lin Coghlan, EV Crowe, Anders Lustgarten, Nessah Muthy, Chris O’Connell, Stef Smith, David Watson and Heathcote Williams with Sarah Woods.
Each is influenced by a significant moment in time: from the Victorian slums through to the ravages of Rachmanism, the 1970s squat revolution and the modern-day housing crisis.
The works are presented in three cycles, which audiences can choose to watch as standalone productions in any order. At points in the run, there are theatrical sits where audiences can see all the nine pieces in one go.
Bringing these stories together in a playful, immersive theatre experience, Home Truths explores changes to housing over the past quarter of a century, as well as the immense changes which the cultural and political landscape has undergone in that time.
Two of the playwrights, Sonali Bhattacharyya and Lin Coghlan, tell us about their contributions.
Slummers by Sonali Bhattacharyya, cycle one
I was commissioned by Cardboard Citizens to write a play set during the Victorian housing crisis. What quickly struck me in my research was the concerted, ideological invention of the ‘deserving’ as opposed to the ‘undeserving’ poor, in the first half of the 19th century, and how this continues to be central to how governments frame the poor today.
There are parallels with how benefits and housing are used as a form of social control now, and this made me want to be involved in this ambitious season of plays – to write a historical piece that evoked an injustice that has continued down the decades.
“I never expected to get a place of my own and have never stopped feeling lucky I have it. It’s harder now than ever to put a roof over your head, to be young, or to be short of money.”
Slummers is about three women – Polly, a teenage street seller whose patter is second to none; her mother, Ada, a working-class milliner and nascent socialist; and Ivy, a rent collector working for Octavia Hill, one of a handful of pioneers of one of the first housing associations.
Polly meets Ivy while selling hats on the street, and takes her on a ‘slum tour’ of her home. Ivy sees potential in Polly, and offers the family rooms at an Octavia Hill dwelling. The family jumps at the chance, but they come to realise the rules and regulations they’re bound by are more far-reaching than they expected. How much of themselves are they willing to lose in order to stay? I wanted to write a historical play but tell it in a non-conventional way, with ongoing tension over who owns the authorial voice.
Sonali Bhattacharyya is a playwright whose work includes Five Years (Old Vic 12), 2066 (Almeida Theatre), The Invisible Boy (Tricycle Theatre), These Four Streets (Birmingham Rep) and is writer in residence of The Coterie.
When I first came to London I lived in a tiny bedsit in Eltham: a spare room upstairs in a house belonging to two elderly ladies. I was alone, broke and scared coming to a city where I knew no one.
Since those early days I’ve lived in rented rooms, flats, squats, council places, and at one point for three months in a tent. Finally in my forties I got my flat. I actually bought it against all the odds – freelance writers are not considered mortgage material.
I never expected to get a place of my own and have never stopped feeling lucky I have it. It’s harder now than ever to put a roof over your head, to be young, or to be short of money. The gap between the rich and the averagely waged, never mind the poor, has never been greater.
When Cardboard Citizens asked me to write a play for the Home Truths season I wanted to write about what a home is and what it’s become. Is it a place of comfort and sanctuary or a money pot? Do we love being in it or love even more what it says about us?
The play is set in 1919 and now; it shows us two sets of people living in the same space a hundred years apart. Some feel blessed while others are still hungry for more. It puzzles over what might be enough for us in 2017, at a time when so many are excluded from having any home at all.
Lin Coghlan has written extensively for theatre, film television and radio. Plays include Waking and Mercy (Soho Theatre) Kingfisher Blue (The Bush) and The Miracle (National Theatre). Her film credits include Some Dogs Bite (Winner Prix du Public, Nantes Film Festival).
Home Truths is on at The Bunker, London, various dates until 13 May.970 Views
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