Online in Utrecht by Pete Brooks

It’s not like we didn’t see it coming, but in March for us in ITD, as for the rest of the world, the virus changed everything. Obviously cancelling the last week of the Night of the Living Dead™️ – Remix tour was a disappointment but in the larger scheme of things only that. At the time we were also in the early stages of staging a new music theatre piece in Utrecht. This project, the Pax project, was a commission from Utrecht School of Arts involving young composers and singers and was designed to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Holland at the end of the Second World War. Overnight this project, which was to be presented at the beautiful and enormous Stadsschouwberg Utrecht in June had to be rethought as something both made and delivered online.

Andrew and I had visited Utrecht in February to meet the group that was to participate in the project, and I’d gone back in very early March to nudge the project along. We had begun with a brief from the Utrecht side that proposed freedom as a thematic, not just in the sense of liberation in wartime but also in more abstract ways; existential freedom, freedom of expression. Freedom is something that as a child and well into adulthood, had always seemed to me to be unequivocally a good thing; Freedom was a progressive idea, people should be free, and western society was moving irresistibly in the direction of greater freedoms.

More recently the idea of freedom has been to a disturbing degree hijacked by both religious conservatives and libertarian right; in the US the freedom or right to carry firearms, and in particular the right of the unborn foetus to life, dominate and distort a political landscape which might do well to be focused on other issues. In Europe the freedom to criticise religion set against the demand for religion to be free from critical attack has broadened into an argument between the freedom to offend set against the freedom to live without being offended. Freedom as an idea is not as simple as it once was. One of the more appalling pieces of pro Brexit propaganda I’ve seen was circulated last year courtesy of our own Matt Prendergast, it’s attached as the header to this blog.  The lines ‘Free at last’ are in fact the last lines of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech. The equation of freedom from slavery with leaving the European Union seems to me to sum up the corruption of the idea in contemporary political discourse.

Anyway I digress. Before lockdown, we had discussed the project as possibly being rather than a celebration, a critical interrogation of the idea of Freedom. The question we asked is maybe summed up by ‘At what price Freedom?’ It’s an important idea. At the moment most of us are sacrificing individual freedom for the common good, albeit a common good that statistics suggest is concentrated in protecting a fairly small demographic; the elderly with pre-existing health conditions. How this develops politically remains to be seen but the tension between reopening economies which broadly will benefit (the economic wellbeing) of younger working people, and retaining strict social distancing rules (which will disadvantage the economic wellbeing of those of working age but benefit healthwise older demographics) will be a major factor in how the political landscape of the world re-adapts to this new reality. In the twenty first century it seems like Freedom is turning into a zero sum game.

Interestingly Pax, in its digital incarnation, ended up exploring the idea of both national and personal concepts of identity and drew heavily on metaphors of the sea, how it is used for both trade and economic benefit and how it needs to be kept at bay in order to allow people to occupy land at or below sea-level.  Maybe freedom is always in a delicate balance, hovering between the freedom to explore, which seems to always end up in some form of exploitation at the expense of others, and the need to assess, always, the cost that comes with the pursuit of freedom.  These are questions that haunt us today as we contemplate our lives in this current pandemic and imagine them when we move into the next stage, having either learned to live with Covid-19, or having found some way out of the dilemmas we currently find ourselves facing.

You can see the digital presentation of Pax here

Pete Brooks

April 2020