‘But I Know This City’ – BS Johnson in Nottingham: Performance Call

BSJ holds The Unfortunates

I’ve been interested in the novels of BS Johnson since I was an undergraduate, living in the city that he wrote about in the classic ‘book-in-a-box’ The Unfortunates. I know three people who knew him, one of whom I wrote about extensively a few years ago. Every year I teach a session about Johnson to my second year creative writing undergrads. I’m not alone in this interest, of course, especially since Jonathan Coe’s fine biography of Johnson, Like A Fiery Elephant, sparked a load of reissues and revivals. Another big fan is my pal, the playwright Andy Barrett. Andy has a project he’s been discussing with me, one that might loosely fit into this years European theatre festival in Nottingham, NEAT, and I offered to tell people about it here. The rest of the words in this post are his.

The Unfortunates is a novel by the experimental English author B.S. Johnson, published in 1969, which is written as an internal monologue by a man who has been sent to an unnamed city to report on a football match. During his time in this city he remembers and reflects on previous visits here to see a friend who has since died of cancer. The city, clearly identified through its detailed description of landmarks, streets, restaurants and pubs, is Nottingham.

The Unfortunates consists of 27 chapters, and is published as a ‘book in a box’. Each chapter is loose and other than ‘First’ and ‘Last’ the chapters can be read in any order. The permutations are colossal.

Excavate Theatre Company (formerly Hanby and Barrett) are looking to work with fifty two local people to present a community reading of this wonderful text on Saturday May 31st as part of NEAT. Working in pairs each reader would be located in one of 26 sites across the city to read their chapter to the visiting listeners who may appear at any time over a ten hour period from 11am to 9.30pm. The venues will be cafes, benches, pubs, the corners of shops, theatres and hotel foyers. Some of these chapters are one page in length; one or two are as long as twelve pages. The average length, in terms of a piece of read material, is around ten minutes.

The idea is that the audience will be given a map and will have the chance to listen to the novel being read to them in any order that they like. Each audience member will therefore experience hearing the novel in a different way. The First and Last chapters will be read every half an hour at the Nottingham Playhouse from 11am through to 10pm, and after that audience members will go off on their journey around the city. We imagine that most readings will therefore be one to one affairs.

For this community reading to take place The Unfortunates needs readers; and a lot of them. Each pair of readers would have one or two hours of rehearsal time, going through their chapter with Andy Barrett; and would then be expected to practice this in their own time. The chapter can be read, it does not have to be learnt; but of course it can be if you would prefer to do that.

As explained, because of the amount of time that readers will be required to stay in each venue there will be two people allocated for each chapter; but only one will read at any given time, (operating on a shift basis), allowing you to break the day up as you see fit.

The Unfortunates seeks to bring to life a little known classic text with a strong connection to Nottingham. And it does so by bringing together people of all ages to read to people in a host of different locations.  As the opening five words of the novel declare: ‘But I know this city!’

If you are interested in being involved then please email Andy Barrett at ‘andy at excavate’ adding ‘.org.uk’. If you have problems with this you can use the contact form above and David will pass your details on. If there are enough readers then we will look at starting rehearsals as soon as we can.


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