Preview: The Culture

The best way to show your affection for something is to take the mickey out of it. That’s the ethos behind a new satirical play that goes behind the scenes during Hull’s City of Culture year

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Throughout 2017 Hull was transformed by its status as the designated UK City of Culture, playing host to a whole raft of performances, exhibitions and events. As the title is passed to Coventry for 2018, Hull is marking the moment with a new play by James Graham. Entitled The Culture and billed as a “farce in two acts”, it’s a comic look behind the scenes of Hull 2017.

“Often the expectation for these big civic events, whether it’s the Olympics or City of Culture, is that it will be a farce, that it’ll be late, over budget and it won’t work,” says Graham. “So we thought a farce structure, where chaos reigns, would be a fun way to look at culture and how you make art.”

Staged at Hull Truck Theatre and directed by its artistic director Mark Babych, the play was commissioned by Martin Green, CEO of Hull’s official culture company.

“We didn’t know if Martin was going to go for this at first, because we thought it might be quite daunting for him to let us in and shine a light on his job and how you organise something like this, but he was well up for it,” says Graham.

“The play was very much in the spirit of the year, really. When it comes down to the branding or the work that’s been commissioned, it’s been a very cheeky, self-deprecating, not-taking-itself-too-seriously kind of year, which is very much the humour of Hull. In that sense the play perfectly matched the kind of work Martin wanted to programme.”

In researching the piece, Graham was allowed access backstage for Hull 2017, sitting in on meetings and speaking to officials, artists and staff. The characters in the finished play are fictional, but very much drawn from experience.

“Oh, you meet some big characters in the world of art and culture and local government. Actually, some of the biggest characters are the volunteers,” he says. “They’re this army of brightly coloured turquoise and pink t-shirt-wearing people who have been like a swarm of bees around Hull. I’ve been interviewing them a lot and they’re some very interesting people.

“You might amalgamate a couple of roles on the production side in the office, but the characters in the play are very much inspired by people I’ve met. I’ve been constantly walking around with a notepad picking up gems.”

Farce or not, there’s no question that the play will be coming out in favour of what the City of Culture experience has done for Hull. “Without turning it into a piece of propaganda, I’ve been here watching the year progress and I’ve been really taken with the positive effect it’s had on the city, in all the ways that you hope something like this could.

“When you talk to people in the street they all say the same thing – that something has shifted. So I have a great affection for it and hopefully the satire and the humour won’t feel like it’s cruel.

“I always think that in a strange kind of way, the best way to show your affection for something is to take the mickey out of it.”

The Culture – A Farce In Two Acts, Hull Truck Theatre, 26 Jan-17 Feb

Photo: Mark Babych and the cast of The Culture, written by James Graham and based on his observations of real-life officials, performers and volunteers

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