Ben Glover reviews The Future for Beginners, a liveartshow theatre production which explores the possibility of being able to design our own lives.
We have all attempted, at some point in our life, to plan for the future – from meticulously designed academic and career paths, through personal triumphs (and equally disasters), to securing a pension that will allow us to barely exist in retirement. We all have a destination that we strive for and an idea on which train we want to travel this journey. But what if we could design our lives – every minute, every second, every detail to ensure that we reach these far flung future destinations; would we do it or is the unpredictability of the journey the essence of a life well lived? This is the question at the centre of Alan Harris’ and Martin Constantine’s latest exploration, The Future for Beginners.
The set would easily recognisable to any disorganised aspiring writer: reams of paper cascading from every available space; crumpled, plastered and utterly intimidating. Each sheet, in this oppressively white canvas, symbolised one diary entry – one further day planned in the future of Bethan (Bethan Mary James) and Ollie (Oliver Wood), who had spent the previous seven and a half years ensuring that their journey together would end on a park bench, both of them as happy and as contented as the day they first met. However, their journey towards the fifty years of precise happiness can only begin if they can find Day One of their future diary. Through a mixture of prose, music and video, we witness the beginning of Bethan and Ollie’s journey into their uncertain planned future.
It becomes quickly apparent that Harris and Constantine, as both writers and directors of The Future for Beginners, are alluding to an embellishment of L.P. Hartley’s famous opening sentence – ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The dual concepts of people’s capriciousness in the moment and our determination to achieve our long term objectives are explored in Harris and Constantine’s third collaborative piece, following on from their award-winning Manga Sister and their adaptation of Rhinegold. The theatrical device of allowing the main protagonists to foretell the future allows the writers to view the traditional interpretation of time from a refreshingly new perspective. Whereas most theatre productions conform to the linear understanding of time, reviewing the past from the perspective of the present, The Future for Beginners does not ponder the question ‘how did we get here?’; instead it more pertinently asks ‘do we wish our future to be completely predetermined by our present?’ This subtle shift in emphasis is both intriguing and welcome.
Alan Harris is now an established figure within the structure of Welsh theatre, having crafted some extraordinary productions in the last seven years. His ability to weave a fresh narrative through a greater theme has always marked his work out as both challenging and exciting. This was nowhere better displayed than Harris’ breakthrough play Orange, in which the audience is challenged to comprehend the kidnapping of a Muslim man by two friends who wish a charity worker to be freed by Islamic Militants. More recently Harris has confronted audiences in Japan with The Opportunity of Efficiency, whilst entertaining crowds closer to home with A Good Night Out In The Valleys – continuing to always display that gift of insightful and witty storytelling within a greater context.
However, there is a slightly disappointing aspect to liveartshow’s production of The Future for Beginners. Given the innovative interpretation of time and Alan Harris’ impressive track record this production lacks the challenging dimension that has typified much of Harris’ previous work. The travails of Bethan and Ollie are charming, even engaging, but the lack of any overarching theme to place their character development in detracts from the overall emotional investment the audience is willing to make and therefore the warmth of an otherwise amiable journey. Furthermore, the use of music before, during and after The Future for Beginners adds little, if anything, to the flow of the story, on the contrary, it breaks the rhythm of what is otherwise a well paced and fluid production.
Despite these significant concerns, liveartshow’s The Future for Beginners is in part a humorous, charming and enjoyable production – with convincing performance from both Bethan Mary James and Oliver Wood. There should be a special mention for the design and lighting of the set, by Natalie Wallace and Elanor Higgins respectively, as both were understated but admirably executed. Bethan and Ollie’s journey was pleasant, it’s just a shame that it was not a little more involving and had a few more stops along the way to enjoy the scenery.
The Future for Beginners, by liveartshow, at the Wales Millennium Centre
Ben Glover is the Managing Editor of Wales Arts Review.