“All stories are fiction. Journalism is the art of putting fictions together in an attempt to tell the truth.” Mike Daisey, self-titled “monologist” and creator of The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, speaks in punchy sentences. He is on the defensive, attempting to explain to a panel of British journalists why some details in his one-man play – a first-hand account of the poor working conditions at the Foxconn factories in Shenzhen, China, where many Apple products are made – are untrue. “Journalism is journalism,” comes the quick-fire response from seasoned writer and broadcaster Libby Purves. “Propaganda is stories.”
The first weekend of this year’s HighTide theatre festival, tucked away in the picturesque town of Halesworth, Suffolk, began not with a play but with a heated debate on “Art, Truth and Journalism”. It was added to the programme after inaccuracies in Daisey’s play, which he has performed in America since 2010, were revealed and his name started trending worldwide on Twitter. Excerpts from the show were broadcast on the public radio programme This American Life in January, after which parts of Daisey’s script were challenged and its fabrications revealed. Comparing his play to a Wired cover story on the Foxconn factories, Daisey reasons “it had the facts all right – but it had no truth in it”. And so it is with such thoughts that I approach the day’s performances.
The first is Clockwork, debut play of 27-year-old Laura Poliakoff (daughter of playwright and director Stephen). Set in a care home in 2065, it considers what old age will be like for today’s twentysomethings. The play is littered with temporal signposts: Etienne (Shomarri Diaz), a young black teen “doing his probation” in the home, brings Harry Potter to read to the play’s ageing subjects Mikey and Carl (Kern Falconer, Russell Floyd); when they groan at his choice, Etienne protests “but my teacher said it’s a classic”. There are animatronic pets to keep the residents company; microchips on to which they can download their memories; and The Archers, ever indefatigable, to listen to.
Poliakoff’s writing is spiked with black humour but its concerns are deeply felt: who will look after us when we’re old? So it’s a pity that the setting doesn’t quite work. The frequent reminders that this is the future sometimes feel clunky, and there is little sense of social evolution. The old men’s language (mostly filthy) isn’t different enough from Etienne’s; and Etienne is, disappointingly, the same disenfranchised strutting black youth portrayed in the media today. What’s best in the play is what’s drawn from life: the overworked nurse known as “Troll Face” (Rachel Atkins), for example, is kindly, patronising and unhappy in the right measures. To invert Daisey’s phrase, Clockwork has all the truth in it – so it doesn’t need the facts.
The 10-day festival offers, in its own words, “new theatre for adventurous audiences”. That could be a veiled warning, for although The Cut in Halesworth has hosted HighTide since its inception in 2007, the festival’s offerings are somewhat grittier than the usual fare at this red brick maltings turned community arts centre. “All the plays have something of a political backbone to them,” HighTide’s young artistic director Steven Atkinson tells me in The Cut’s buzzing bar. “There’s a generational thing of feeling genuinely dissatisfied with what we were brought up with.” He cites Ella Hickson’s new play Boys (premiering at HighTide but only open to critics when it transfers to London’s Soho Theatre at the end of May): “It’s asking ‘where are the jobs now? Where is the opportunity?’ All the plays here have that awareness, that fear of ‘what’s next?’.”
A good number of the playwrights in this year’s programme are under 30 – yet its themes are not merely the concerns of youth. Vickie Donoghue’s Mudlarks – another first play – has teenagers at its centre but paints a far bigger social portrait. It’s set somewhere in the Thames Estuary, roughly now. Three boys are hiding from the police on a grubby stretch of beach – though, as one of them says, it’s not really a beach but a riverbank. Strewn with debris from the twinkling capital up the river, there’s not even sand here, just mud. We learn – horrifyingly – why the boys are hiding. We also learn what they think the future holds, or rather doesn’t hold. When the childlike, bobble-hatted Wayne (Mike Noble) tells Charlie (James Marchant), the bully of the group, that he sometimes comes here to think, Charlie snaps “What have you got to think about?” Their macho dare-devilling is really a search for identity in a place where loyalty comes before opportunity. “We don’t leave, we stay” is the rule. But there is little pride in that – rather, as Charlie tells Jake (Scott Hazel), “there are no roads out of here, mate”.
Unlike the others, Jake “has plans”; he has the most to lose by getting caught and he knows it. Most simply, Jake represents hope – and this is touchingly conveyed when he and Wayne pretend to sail up the Thames to London, imagining the changing cityscape. This is a play that believes in the transporting, if not transforming power of words; its language is fluid – rough and broken then racing to an unexpected poetry. In the bar after the show, I ask Donoghue about the voices in her play. Essex-born, she still has a full-time job and tells me she gets ideas listening to the conversations on her commuter train. Recently she heard a girl ask a boy why she hadn’t seen him at school: “I’m having a go at being a man,” he replied.
While Donoghue borrows from her surroundings – a kind of impure verbatim – Daisey has run into trouble for presenting as verbatim what is fictional. The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs tells the history of Apple spliced with Daisey’s visit to Shenzhen, casting Apple’s original idealism in an ironic light. Daisey was an early adopter of Apple’s technology, “a worshipper in the house of Mac” spurred on by “lust and geekery”. Initially, his tone is light, self-mocking; Jobs, he says, is “master of the forced upgrade … he made us need things we never knew we wanted”. But things darken as the Shenzhen story progresses: Jobs is now a “visionary asshole”.
The knowledge that Daisey appropriated reports from other Chinese factories, exaggerated the numbers and otherwise embellished his experience might have diminished the impact for some at HighTide (though disputed sections have been removed). What is undeniable is Daisey’s huge energy and immaculate comic timing. He delivers his monologue sitting at a table under a spotlight, his only props some notes and a glass of water: it’s an intense experience, often funny and sometimes very moving.
Few people believe Daisey was right to mislead his audiences; the issue, how our heedless choices affect tens of thousands of factory workers, is too important. But what those who gave Daisey a standing ovation at HighTide were applauding, I think, was his ability to speak to their consciences, to open their eyes. His monologue is a piece of theatre unlike any other I’ve experienced – like HighTide’s programming, it’s not flawless, but it is brave.
Ends on Sunday, www.hightide.org.uk