Under the Minniescope: Billy Elliot

Billy: “I don’t want a childhood. I want to be a ballet dancer.”

Earlier this year, an email arrived in my inbox with the subject – ‘Billy Elliot’. It piqued my interest. It was an invitation from the Bord Gais Énergy Theatre to travel to the West End in London and view a matinee performance of the show, ahead of its jaunt across the pond to our greener shores.

I said yes. Immediately.

Sinead_Burke_Minnie_Mélange_Billy_ElliotI would like to be in a position to say that my response was calm, considered and rationale but no – it was in fact, the opposite. See GIF.

If I had to articulate the rationale behind my levels of excitement, it is that the theatre is a very special place to me. It is a safe space. It is the antidote to digital saturation.

It is a vehicle to silence society’s stereotypes and one which amplifies a new narrative that is constantly in flux between the writer, director, producer, actors and audience. It is immersive, it is educational, it is liberating. It is the definition of escapism.

Despite my tangible endearment for the theatre, ‘Billy Elliot’ was unfamiliar to me. I had heard of its success and I knew of the film but whatever way the messaging permeated my consciousness, I didn’t think it would be for me.

Oh, but how wrong I was… It’s treatment of masculinity and adolescence is gripping.

BE A MAN.

On the surface, it’s a musical theatre performance about a young working-class boy, named Billy Elliot, who likes to dance. On stage, it is a plot line that extends far beyond such simplicity due to the social and political textures and complexities that are weaved throughout.

Set in 1984-1985 in a mining village in the North-East of England, the politics of the coal-miners’ strike and the reign of Margaret Thatcher are explicit. Born just months before the ‘Iron Lady’ was ousted from government, my familiarity with the miners’ manifesto was vague at best. This didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the production but grounded it in reality. The passion, frustration and hopelessness of Billy’s community mirrored that of the political dissonance which populates our timelines, news bulletins and headlines today.

However, it is the protection of Billy by this community that allows the soundtrack, narrative and messaging of the show to still percolate within my thinking. Growing up without a matriarchal influence, it is his father and brother who carve and shape Billy’s personality and ideals. Two very masculine men. Or at least, that’s what their behaviour, on-stage movement and crass language narrates to the audience. Billy’s love for ballet is a complete paradox to this upbringing. He was taught that strength, power and boyhood are defined by just one meaning.

That is not a criticism of his family but a comment on how society viewed masculinity and unfortunately, how it continues to do so. To engage in feminine activities is to lessen your power and to lesson your person. It others you.

Dad: All right for your Nana, for girls. No, not for lads, Billy. Lads do football… or boxing… or wrestling. Not friggin’ ballet.”

The writer of ‘Billy Elliot’, Lee Hall, chose not to follow this discourse. He refused to adhere to this predictably and instead, gifted the audience with a multi-faceted motif of masculinity that is not forced but fair, realistic and essential for the way in which our society defines what it means to be a man in the modern era. A discussion that is coloured by an array of tender, beautiful moments that illustrate how an individual can flourish when supported by their family, friends and community.

As someone who greatly profited from the love and care of my own ecosystem, it was these poignant nuggets of theatre that permitted trails of mascara to meander across my face.

On stage at ‘Billy Elliot’ in London. Notions. 

SOLIDARITY.

Half-way through undertaking a PhD on the voice of the child, my work indicates that it’s rare that we go beyond tokenism in giving voice to young people’s experiences. In theatre, we include young actors in the foreground to make the framing of a scene more aesthetically pleasing or they’re employed because they have a pitch and a flexibility that becomes impossible with age. Some productions such as Matilda, Annie, Pippin and Motown contradict the above statement but few performances underline the uniqueness of childhood more than ‘Billy Elliot’.

Despite the political subtext, Billy vehemently pursues an interest that could lead to ridicule, shame and punishment. Few stages give a working-class child (albeit a white, male working-class child) such autonomy.

“What does it feel like when you’re dancing?” asks a tutor on-stage. “Don’t know”, replies Billy. “Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And…. sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.”

That paragraph of script is followed by a mesmerising and haunting songify-ed soliloquy that is expertly choreographed. It personifies the innocence and ambition of adolescence. It makes you want to encourage the children in your life to aim for and achieve their every aspiration.

Yet, this representation of childhood is not idyllic. Primary school-aged children utter more profanities than you can count and the continued utterance of the word ‘puff’ will make you gasp (and question if it should still be included in 2016…).   

minnie_melange_billy_elliot

SHOULD YOU SEE ‘BILLY ELLIOT’?

Unequivocally, yes.

My experience of ‘Billy Elliot’ was of the West End variety and as a guest of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, it would be naive for me to say that London’s grandiose setting didn’t impact on my response. However, even if I was to reduce my enthusiasm to compensate for this external factor, I would still encourage you to witness the show with immeasurable exuberance in one of the most accessible theatres in Dublin. 

I could tell you that the choreography is outstanding, that the music will resonate with you for days, that the children will surprise and amaze you and that you’ll undoubtedly shed at least one tear but exit feeling more optimistic than when you arrived. But, you’ve probably heard all of the above before.

Instead, I’ll say that ‘Billy Elliot’ is unapologetically British and I am curious as to how this will translate to an audience that is currently celebrating its centenary of imperial liberation. Yet, perhaps its time we reflect and assess our relationship with the British Isles, with gender-stereotypes and with the future generation. Why not do it while in the audience of a show that received five Olivier Awards and ten Tony Awards?

‘Billy Elliot’ is in the Bord Gais Energy Theatre from July 26th – Sept 3rd 2016.

Tickets start at €25 and increase to €68.50 but the theatre offers concessions for children, seniors and students (YES)!

Written by

Sinéad Burke is an academic and a writer with an obsessive interest in fashion, education and 'Extraordinary Women'. She is an ambassador for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Women's Council of Ireland.

Leave a Reply