Directed by Flo Wilson, Shirley May, Ali Gadema
23rd October 2014
The title and early publicity of Battle of the Minds teased a poetry slam like no other: Experience and Knowledge would battle it out onstage in a whirl of words spewed forth by the ensemble of poet-performers that make up Young Identity. So I came expecting a slam, in some form or other – but this show is something else entirely. Beginning with a prologue that borrows and plays with lines from the opening of Romeo and Juliet, this is a mixture of short sketches, skits and poems performed ‘straight’, all on the theme of education and knowledge.
Young Identity are a self-assured group: ranged around a set which loosely represents a classroom and playground, they’re not afraid to tangle with the touchiest of subjects. One young poet who pulls no punches delivers venomous lines about the politics of race, nationality and the education system, reminding us that no amount of colouring-in flags could teach schoolkids the cost in blood of building a nation. Another poem is delivered by a young girl with a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability – she tells us how she will teach her future daughters about sexual consent. Meanwhile, behind her, the rest of the ‘class’ gossips about sexting. This same poet later delivers a section of the show about black history, sarcastically telling us that, although black people’s history is older and richer than the story of Western imperialism, the half-hearted way Black History Month is celebrated doesn’t really matter, because nobody cares anyway.
It isn’t all serious, though. Several sections are laugh-out-loud funny as the ensemble quote the sort of things that teachers like to say: anything from the cliché “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched” to an exasperated “Lord Jesus, take me now!” At the back of the stage is a table, the top covered in graffiti which the audience can see projected in a live feed onto the back wall. The cast add to it as the show goes on, representing the creativity that leaks out of the corners of the education system. One scene ends with the ‘teachers’ all yelling, “Right, who drew this?!” as the rest of the cast scatter away, sniggering, across the stage, leaving the graffiti (their names, a pair of breasts, a Manchester bee) in their wake. A short monologue about one girl’s quest to get out of a P.E. lesson is played for big laughs, too.
The pace also varies enough to carry the audience along comfortably, despite the lack of a unifying storyline, so that the runtime of less than an hour feels on the short side. A boy who raps about the things Tupac Shakur’s music has taught him builds rhyme upon rhyme, line after line, at a frantic pace, heading for a climactic round of applause, while other moments are more thoughtful, the poems subtler or more heartfelt. There are also sections of voiceover which interject at crucial moments. The one thing that would add another layer to the experience is music. One scene at the beginning, which sees the whole ensemble sing/chant a ‘pledge of allegiance’ to always use correct spelling and wear immaculate uniforms, is effective, and this element could be developed further. Both the fast-paced rap and the softer, slower poetry might have interwoven beautifully with different musical styles.