Feature: 100% London
Who really represents this city's population? The search for '100% London'
This week London celebrates its most famous resident, an 86-year old white British grandmother who shares her ethnic origin with 59 per cent of her capital's citizens, her 70+ age group with 11 per cent and her income level with a tiny fraction of 1 per cent.
QE2, as she is affectionately known outside the luxury ocean liner trade, is the ultimate human symbol of London. But even her fans wouldn't claim she's representative: to represent 100 per cent of London, you'd probably need to be a schizophrenic hermaphrodite with an international family tree and permanent road rage.
Represent London with 100 people instead of one, and a more nuanced portrait emerges. Enter (from stage left) an inspired Berlin group of 'reality trend theatremakers' called Rimini Protokoll, whose city portraits convert statistics into real people. '100% Melbourne' and '100% Cologne' have already received acclaim. Now, it's time for '100% London', commissioned by Lift Festival and the Hackney Empire.
For their new show, the company is sourcing 100 ordinary Londoners who fit 100 statistical profiles derived from Greater London census data. The idea is to create, in the words of Protokoll founder Helgard Haug, 'a human statistical chain reaction': each volunteer recruits the next, until every profile is converted into a person; each individual is interviewed by the company and ultimately takes part in three shows, whose content is devised from their answers.
The answers are riveting. Interviews are often much more frank and unpredictable when they're with non-famous people who haven't been media-groomed to the point of banality. I tagged along with the producers to meet volunteers number 93 and 94, Robert Shepherd (male, white British central Londoner, age 35-54) and his son Beckett (male, white British central Londoner, age 5-9). In their small bright kitchen near Euston, overflowing with pictures, objects, hand-drawn diagrams and glass boxes full of tiny tropical fish, you instantly see the contrast between the vivid detail of the individuals and the anonymous categories they fit into.
It's a contrast that Rimini Protokoll aims to make visible in the theatre. Each of the 100 volunteers has to name an object which is special to them, to represent them on stage. Eight-year-old Beckett chooses his homemade seagull. His father chooses a larger work-in-progress - his handmade psychogeographical account of the squares of Bloomsbury, where he has lived and worked as an artist for years.
Later, over the phone, Eileen Christie, number 30 (female, white Irish north Londoner, age 35-54), tells me how having to choose something to represent her made her think again about her identity. 'The questions really made you think about what things meant to you,' she says. 'I chose my mum's wedding ring because I lost my parents, who were married for 54 years, in the same year.'
Christie was recruited by her son, Jordan Christie (male, mixed-race north Londoner, age 10-19). They live in Tottenham, where Eileen and her husband moved from Coventry. 'I'm first-generation Irish,' she says. 'And I felt I never fitted in. My son is second generation, and he's a real London kid: fits in with anyone, knows his identity, knows his Jamaican and Irish background. My kids say they're “Jamirish”. We've laid the path for them.'
Her son agrees. 'In my generation,' he says, 'you don't think twice about what colour you are. Colour doesn't pop into your mind. You know what I'm saying? If you live in London, you understand. If you're from outside of London, you don't.'
The stereotyping that makes him angry is different. 'I tweet a lot,' he says. 'And the other day someone made a joke about Tottenham which was rude and stereotypical, so I said something about it.' Stereotyping has, he says, got worse since last summer's riots. But he argues that it's prevalent anyway in the media: 'British films in London are always about crime, illegitimacy, drugs, killings and exploitation.'
Each one of the London volunteers that I speak to has a fresh, unique voice. But it's when you hear them side by side that the scope of the project emerges. And they get to ask the questions too: each Londoner has come up with a yes/no question to ask the other 99, some of which will be used to split the participants in live on-stage polls on issues that matter to them (unsurprisingly, transport dominates).
Their answers will differ. But they are strikingly united on one topic: how proud they are to represent their city. As '100% Londoner' number 31, Alice Seymour (female, white British north Londoner, age 20-34) says: 'You meet hundreds of people each day and know nothing of them. You as an individual are so small. But I love London and I'm proud to live here. To think that I might represent a piece of London in any way is brilliant.'