A Seventh Man – Sharing

In November, Ollie Smith and I shared an early work-in-progress of A Seventh Man – an adaptation/exploration of the 1975 Berger and Mohr book of the same name. Berger tells us in the Foreword that ‘This book concerns a dream/nightmare, the existence of the migrant worker’ and from the start this gave us a potential of duality. I tell the audience, holding up the book, ‘This book concerns a dream’. Ollie holds up his copy and tells them ‘This book concerns a nightmare’. We sit on opposite sides of a trestle table onto which we have scrawled the outline of a city in chalk. There are five audience members on my side and five on Ollie’s inside S.H.E.D – a mobile research project – a temporary wooden structure, not unlike the barracks pictured in the book inhabited by the migrant workers it describes. Suitcases were piled up outside and given to audience members on arrival. Hard hats and hi vis jackets hung from hooks inside which was lined with pages from the book.

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Another performer, Hayley Doherty, hands the audience members half of a photograph as we tell them how the journey to the place of work would be escorted by a guide and a photograph would be used as an insurance policy, or ticket. One half left with the family. One half taken with the worker and returned to the family when they had arrived in the city. While Ollie and I narrate the book Hayley starts to construct the city out of objects that are connected to the life of the migrant workers, dominoes become buldings, playing cards become a lake, nails become trees, LX tape becomes roundabouts. A miniature train set is assembled to represent the journey the men have taken, it arrives in time for a final dialogue between a migrant worker who has returned home and his young cousin who wants to leave. ‘A river of cars’ is added to the map at the end and the audience see a city built before their eyes, the production line of its own construction mirroring the process of working described so vividly in the book in a breathless paragraph without a full stop.

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‘One of the walls of the corner where his bed is, leads to a door, the door opens on to a passage, at the end of the passage are the taps to wash under and… the wet floor of this place leads to the way out, down the stairs into the street, along the walls of the buildings on one side and the wall of the traffic on the other, past the railings, under the glass and artificial light to the work he does: that floor to clean: that hole to punch: that ingot to lift: that casing to beat: that gearbox to fit in: the job done, an identical or almost identical job takes its place, the same job, but a different floor, a different hole, a different ingot, a different casing, a different gearbox; they must be different because he has just done the job, and now he has to do it again, and after that again and again…’ – A Seventh Man (1975)

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We start to read this text together and then overlap as one of us reads the list in italics while the other reads the next passage. The words themselves become the machinery. There are three acts – based on the three chapters in the book: Act One: Departure, Act Two: Work, Act Three: Return. Act One sees us collide and contrast Berger’s description of migrant workers of 1975 and interviews with those today who have come to the UK in search of a new life. Act Two explores the kind of work they do and how they are received – it speaks to the debate of freedom of movement that is one of the key planks of the Vote Leave argument that led to Brexit. Act Three explores what it is like for these migrant workers if and when they return and what ‘home’ might mean to them. We visit Berger’s notebook and Mohr’s darkroom. Using verbatim text, interviews and images, we will ask how migrant workers of today acclimatise to their new home and/or return to their own.

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For the next phase of the project, we will work with two more deviser/performers, Gabrielle Benna and Olwen Davies, to bring the book to life and explore the potential to open up S.H.E.D to present our performance to more audience members. It will become a set inside a theatre rather than a pop-up theatre outside one. We will continue to explore the potential of more intimate performances for ten people at a time at different festival contexts. The S.H.E.D can be staged open to a maximum audience or closed to a minimum audience. The S.H.E.D will be adapted to accommodate video projection, slides and soundscape and designed by a creative team including a set designer, a sound designer and a video designer. The slideshow/video takes place by projecting found slides and images from the book onto the walls, doors and table within the shed. The performance is a journey through the book inhabiting the environment the book describes and develops Pinchbeck and Smith’s interests in intimate, immersive performance, following on from their recent work, Solo.

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A Seventh Man is part of an ongoing body of work – The Berger and Mohr Trilogy – following A Fortunate Man (commissioned by New Perspectives in 2018), exploring themes of doctors and mental health, and the forthcoming At the Edge of the World (2021), exploring themes of death, photography and memory. Each piece takes a collaboration between Berger and Mohr as a starting point and attempts to replicate their use of words and images onstage and relate the book to the present day. They are in a chronological order and chart the journey the two collaborators made together. In doing so, they also explore the creative process and collaboration itself, similar to Pinchbeck & Smith (we have been working together for 10 years). We are currently looking for partners to support R&D for this project and will tour festivals/venues in Spring and Autumn 2020.

Images: Simon Burrows and Rhiannon Jones