One of the best things about reviewing for the Manchester Theatre Youth Awards is that I’m getting the chance to see things I wouldn’t have heard about or considered buying a ticket for. It’s pushing me out of my theatrical comfort zone and giving me new experiences – and none more so than Battle of the Minds, which I saw at Contact Theatre last week.
A hybrid of theatre, rap and performance poetry, Battle of the Minds is a project created and delivered by the writing group Young Identity – though it is less a battle between opposing forces than a collaboration. Costumed in school uniform before a sparse classroom-style set, the young writer-performers monologue their thoughts on knowledge and the UK’s education system, speaking directly to the audience. The devised nature of the piece means that these thoughts are delivered passionately and articulately, but that Battle of the Minds has rather a scattergun approach. There are also group scenes, pre-recorded voiceovers, raps and anecdote-style speeches, all of which are interesting, but do not help to form a cohesive whole. (The rather inconsistent staging adds to this impression of fragmentation.) When dealing with such vast and fluid concepts as knowledge, education, childhood and identity however, perhaps this is more fitting – and this is the result of many writers’ work rather than one.
In its critiques of the education system, Battle of the Minds also touches on issues connected with class, race, gender and politics – all of which shape the identities of young people. The rap monologues in particular seethe with intelligent frustration at the ways in which education can suppress young people, and one or two receive well-deserved rounds of applause. One girl’s monologue about the advice she would give to her daughter regarding sex and consent is moving and wise, so much so that it’s hard (but very encouraging) to believe that it came from a young writer. It’s not all anger and rebellion however, as touches of comedy lighten the tone – pupils banter with each other and one girl tells the unfortunate story of what happened when she forgot her PE kit one day. Teachers are portrayed in a comical light too, as their familiar cliched putdowns (‘it’s your time you’re wasting’) are reeled off by the performers, addressing the audience as if we are all naughty children.
These humorous moments – and the energetic interaction between the performers – make me almost nostalgic for my own school days. The fact that school itself is also shown in a positive light adds another dimension to the performance, and prevents it becoming too mired in grievance and pessimism. Instead, Battle of the Minds is a well-written, mature and passionately delivered piece of theatre that Michael Gove et al could benefit from watching. (Yes, I know that’s a slightly dated reference, but I’m not a politics blogger am I??)