Bonnie Greer on Yes: Re-evaluating ideas of history
The author and playwright on her debut opera and its genesis through a very public controversy
In a guest blog, playwright and author Bonnie Greer discusses Yes, a new ROH2 commission based upon her experience of being invited to appear on the BBC Question Time alongside the leader of a right-wing nationalist political party. The BBC’s transmission of the programme, and Bonnie Greer’s decision to appear in it provoked a storm of discussion. This inspired the opera, produced in partnership with composer Errollyn Wallen.
Before I started writing this blog, I saw a tiny item in the London Evening Standard about the historian David Starkey which said that he said British school children should learn something about their “own culture”. When it was put to him that Britain was “rather diverse”, he was quoted as saying: “No, it’s not. Most of Britain is a mono-culture. You think London is Britain. It’s not.” He wants our “island story” to be taught.
If there is a story that doesn’t talk about immigration – from incomers, invaders, etc – does Starkey even play a part in it? His own mother’s name-”Lyon” is “possibly a place name: the city of Lyons, France.”
Actually: English itself is a language of West Germanic origin – brought to Britain by invaders from what is now northwest Germany and the Netherlands.
Yes poses questions and issues like these, lays them bare, and hopefully, makes people look around them. And not only look, but listen: listen to the place names, the surnames. Their origins and how they came to be British will surprise you.
So for me, making Yes is not only talking about the two weeks that I went through before I did that Question Time that also had Nick Griffin on it two years ago, it’s about laying a gauntlet down and saying “you haven’t got the history right.”
Yes is an opera , not a play, because as a synaesthete, I hear music all of the time anyway, so to render that two weeks into this form was natural and right.
I came to this work as a playwright: plot, characters, crisis resolution, the end. A composer – especially one as brilliantly musical as Errollyn Wallen – doesn’t work that way. I had to write, and then erase, and then pare down, and then find the words that set her to compose and to trust that she would complete that arc of feeling and character. Which she did. John Lloyd Davies, in charge of developing new work for ROH2, was the only guy we wanted – the Starkeys of the world might not believe the fact that we didn’t ask for a black woman director. We wanted the best. And we got it.
So I wrote, built people and a kind of story and Errollyn went away and composed and orchestrated. Sometimes I wouldn’t hear from her for a while, which is uncomfortable for a playwright. In the theatre of plays the music is always last and always under the control of the play. In Yes, Errollyn’s music, the singers and John create character as you would experience another human being through flashes of lightning: here the person is, you get a sharp take, and then they’re gone. There is no plot just “experience”. There is a nation saying: “No one’s listening, no one hears us”, and “I hate all politicians!”; and “I must…for our mother, for our father…” and “We’ve lost our voices and our choices…”.
I’m onstage, writing my experience and feelings as they unfold in song and music, all kinds of wonderful music including reggae and gospel. For me, Yes breaks the whole opera thing open, breaks open this whole idea of stately stasis and awe, we’ve stripped it out. And yet…in an hour long work, a tiny thing, we open some doors, ask some questions, quietly move on and allow the audience to get on with it.
Yes keeps opening up for me, even though I wrote the words and the people and kind of know it. Actually, I don’t. It challenges me. It gets me into those places that I can’t find the words to describe. It says: “Here we are. Deal with it. Together.”
Yes opens on Tuesday 22 November. Buy tickets