In his Fringe show Two Little Ducks, UK spoken-word artist and activist Matt Abbott uses poetry to explore contemporary politics. Native to a city that voted 66% Leave, Abbott delves into the socio-economic climate which led many traditionally working-class communities to vote for Brexit, as well as his experiences volunteering at the Calais Jungle. Broadway Baby’s Carly Brown sat down with him to discuss how he created the show and what he’s learned from performing at the Fringe.
Tell us a little bit about your show.
The show has three key strands: the working-class Leave vote in the EU Referendum, my time volunteering at the Calais Jungle last summer, and a fictionalized story based on a character called Maria, which sort of ties them all together.
How did you come to the decision to include those three stands and link them in the show?
I came into a little bit of money in September and had the opportunity to do a show. I thought, What can I write about? I’m a political and social activist and that’s always been in my poetry. So I thought it would be a little bit of a betrayal of my art form if I didn’t talk about what’s happening right now.
Obviously I wanted to talk about Calais because I was there last year. Also, I’ve noticed that a lot of people dismiss anybody who voted Leave as a racist, small minded, ignorant, and idiotic. The campaign itself was definitely very xenophobic at the top level towards the end, which was horrible, and I campaigned against it strongly, but I can understand why a lot of people from working-class communities like mine chose to vote for Brexit. And I thought, There’s no point in coming to Edinburgh and preaching to the converted. So I’ll do something that maybe challenges preconceptions.
But at the same time, I don’t want people to think that I’m defending all elements of the Brexit campaign. So by talking about Calais, it’s very much challenging people’s views towards refugees because unfortunately there are a lot of people who have a lot of hostility towards refugees, which is awful. So that’s why I talk about those two things.
For the Maria strand, I just wanted something that was a different flavor. Something that was fictionalized and that sort of linked in, but was its own standalone thread. I’ve been writing that character for nine years so it just slotted in naturally.
Everything that I’m talking about in that show is really personal to me and I think that’s important with a poetry show.
One of the things that I thought was really effective in your writing was the closely observed details of the various settings – from the seagulls in Calais to the quality of the light while riding the Megabus. Do you take notes or observations when you’re going around? How do those details come into your writing?
It’s all from memory: I had no intention of writing about Calais when I was there. When you’re listening to a poem, I think it’s really important that the poet shows you. If I mention stuff like the seagulls, the smells, it gives you a sense of being there. So I just try to visualize it, take myself back there, and describe it in as sensory a way as possible.
As far as the staging goes, you utilized a few props – the flag, the canister and, to an extent, the chair. How did you settle on those?
Because it’s three strands, I wanted it to be clear which one I was talking about, without having to explain it every time. The CS gas canister seemed stupid not to bring up with me because it is genuinely a CS gas canister from The Jungle.
All the way through the show I’m talking about the Union Flag. The flag represents so many different things to different people. Sometimes, it represents the government and the state. Sometimes it represents nationalism or patriotism. It can be a religious thing. It can be all sorts of stuff.
Two Little Ducks is not your first show at the Fringe, but your second.
Yes, this is the second, but the first one that I did, two years ago, was essentially just a well-crafted set list of my best poems. I sort of weaved it together at the start and the end, but it wasn’t a show. Whereas this, I would like to think, is an actual show.
Were there any lessons you took from that first experience performing at the Fringe that you utilized this time around?
The reason I did that first week was to get an idea of the flavor [of the Fringe], because Edinburgh is so crazy, so intense and such unforgiving hard work. It’s amazing, don’t get me wrong. I’m so glad that I did that first show because it prepares you for the flyering and the highs and the lows with ticket sales.
As a poet, it’s difficult coming to the festival because you’re put under so much pressure to do a show that is essentially a piece of theatre. The way I’ve done it is sort of half theatre, half not. You’ve got to play to your strengths and do what’s in your comfort zone. I think a lot of poets are put under pressure to conform to what they feel like they should do, but you should just do whatever works well for your art form because you know yourself better than anyone else. When you’re actually on stage, on your own, miles away from home, begging people to come in, you need to feel comfortable with what you’re doing. You’ve just got to do what you’re happiest with.