Ella Road’s The Phlebotomist (currently playing at Hampstead Theatre) is part of a growing trend of plays dealing with surviving the everyday. It has thematic resonances with Mike Bartlett’s Game, Philip Ridley’s Radiant Vermin and Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children, all plays that put the desperate desire to create a stable home in conflict with the responsibilities we have to future generations.
Visions of domestic bliss have been difficult to imagine since the 2008 crash. Stagnant wages and the virtual impossibility of buying a house has created a very particular kind of anxiety for a generation who unconsciously expected certain realities to exist once they decided to embrace them. We millennials have never really reconciled ourselves to a future that didn’t resemble the adult world our parents inhabited. One day, we say, the reset button will be hit and normal service will resume. But all the while a nagging voice tells us our future is being written by those who don’t have our best interest at heart. The futures being rehearsed in the theatre today have a dystopian flavour reveals a generation fearful of it’s own capacity for preserving it’s domestic comforts.
The Phlebotomist is set in the near future, a caste system exists based on the quality of one’s blood. Bea – the phlebotomist of the title – and Aaron, a hot shot lawyer, have a good rating and enjoy a good life. The one snag in their marriage is the absence of a baby. It’s a subject they often skirt around, knowing that making a decision to either have one or not could collapse their studied performance of ambivalence to the society they live in. The audience learn that babies with a low rating can be legally murdered (“post natal abortion”). It’s a cautionary tale about the dangers of pouring our hopes and dreams into idyllic, ostensibly normal variations of family life that may no longer be possible to obtain without exacting a heavy price.
Mike Bartlett mixes the Big Brother model of twenty-four surveillance with computer game violence to see just how much pain a couple are willing to endure to keep a house. Philip Ridley reverses the process in Radiant Vermin by having the protagonists turn murderous to climb the social ladder. Lucy Kirkwood’s sombre play about a nuclear catastrophe asks at what point do the aspirations of adults come at the expense of the generation who follow them.
Thinking about theses plays, it was interesting to note a report out this week recommended giving millennials £10,000 each as a way of bridging the wealth divide. What price would one pay to live for free in house? What do we lose if we except something for free? What does domestic survival look like in the era of globalisation?
Dystopian futures show us the potential consequences of events being undertaken today. This includes sensibilities and cultural norms as much as it does about politics. Aspiring to own a home and start a family feels modest because we sense it is being deliberately withheld from us. More than that, we are deserving of it. The futures these plays present are bleak because the characters cannot adjust their aspirations to fit the new times. We need to start making a future that is not conditioned by the aspirations of the past.