Plastic Zion programme note

The use of the word "plastic" in the title of Chris Ward's 1982 play Plastic Zion is no accident. A certain element of plasticity defines the play's characters and is central to Ward's conception of their human situation.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "plastic" as that which is "characterized by moulding, shaping, modelling, fashioning, or giving form to a yielding material, as clay or wax; capable of shaping or moulding formless matter." Plastic Zion's characters possess selves perfectly described by the phrase "formless matter." They have rejected the conventional values of a society which they see as lifeless, hidebound and corrupt (they are archetypal punks) and so find themselves in the position of having to create their lives without guidance from tradition and in defiance of normative taboos. Everything - faith, politics, sexuality, even love - is up for grabs.

At one of the play's climaxes, the central character Clem (a working class boy becomes famous and wealthy through a fluke of the then-contemporary and promisingly plasticised culture) states that "the one thing I do know, there ain't no God. So you decide to invent one and play him yourself…" Yet Clem is profoundly unsure as to what his god-self wants to create. His character consists entirely of uncertainty. Are the people around him genuine? Where does he go from here? Why can't "some fucking sure and clever person who's got it all worked out" intervene and help him to sort the wheat from the chaff. Clem is so far from being sure that even the above-quoted statement about god is indefinitive. Another character observes that they have observed that Clem "crosses himself backstage before he goes on for a gig…"

The characters "can't be bothered with politics" as "they're not interested in us and what we want." This rejection of involvement leaves them with time on their hands, scrabbling for ways to fill it. It makes for a curiously drifting, haphazard way of life - one in which going out "gives you something to talk about the next day" - and most of the time talk is all they do, on an extraordinary range of subjects. They are their own sources of entertainment, their own sources of meaning - and conversely they must take responsibility for their own boredom and for the failure of the meanings they attempt to give the world.

Our contemporary (2006) culture has moved on somewhat from the punk era. Consumer ideology encourages us to be definite in our wants, fit into easily defined demographics, fit into clear-cut categories, as if our selves could be summed up by the ticks we place on monitoring forms. Nowhere is this more noticeable than in the demand that we define our sexuality as gay or straight. Things are not so simple for the people in Plastic Zion. Clem has a girlfriend, Josephine, whom he might be expected to settle down and marry someday, yet he does not see this as an attractive future. Domesticity has no lure for him - it reduces him to following her around supermarkets "searching for pineapple chunks." He often seems more comfortable in the company of his best mate, with whom he indulges in so much horseplay that it is impossible to know whether his statement to Yak - "Why don't you tell her the truth, I fancy yer" - is a joke or veracity. Certainly Yak hopes the latter and despite his occasional boasting about shagging punkettes, the play is clear as to where his emotional and sexual desires actually lie. One of the play's more terrifying uncertainties is that when Yak finally does make a definitive declaration of his real feelings, he and the rest are unsure as to whether he ought to have done so or not. They are left with no clear course of action, they remain scared in the dark mist of unknowing. They face the pain of free choice.

The current production of Plastic Zion emphasises the plastic nature of the characters' selves by recasting one of Clem's hangers-on, Carly, as a gender-bender in the tradition of the early-80s Blitz nightclub scene. The gender-benders were young men who dressed, acted and were sometimes even described by themselves and others as female. Everyone refers to Carly as "she". Yet these boys remained boys, and often caused shocked and even violent reactions in those taken-in enough to think them real females - one grab for the genitals proves the biological facts. The gender benders were not interested in changing their sex - surgical transexuality is essentially a conservative choice, reaffirming the existence of gender norms and the terms used to describe them (man, woman) even as it seems to resist them - but in redefining the words which could be used to describe them and the selves they were creating.

Creating and dressing a self outside of preconceived and traditional notions was what the punk movement was all about. This sounds exciting and radical, and so it is. But it is also profoundly painful, as giving birth often is. It is no surprise to see that Chris was soon to write a play called Amphibious Babies. All of his characters are their own babies, creating an identity in which they will either sink or swim. Is that a good thing? Again, uncertainty is our only answer. As Clem says, "It's like the track on the new album, Plastic Zion. 'To some this would be paradise, everything they ever wanted, but I don't know whether it's heaven or hell.'"

James Martin Charlton,
February 2006.