By Jane Cornwell for The Australian
April 6 2018

Jeremy Goldstein's rocky relationship with his father led to Truth to Power Cafe

In a theatre in Bradford, northern England, under a handmade banner with an image of an angel dressed in cricket whites, a young woman is standing at a microphone. “Fear, you have controlled me too long,” she declares as part of a five-minute monologue, before taking a seat onstage.

The next participant, a local playwright with a blue mohawk, moves into the spotlight to rail against elitist art institutions and their “wank-speak”. Then he too sits, making way for a teenager who uses her five minutes to call out her depression: “Leave me the hell alone.”

The phrase “Truth to Power” is emblazoned across the top of the banner, soaring above the tips of angel’s wings; a blue-eyed, brown-haired angel that happens to be a likeness of a man sitting below it, the first person to arrive onstage: Jeremy Goldstein, who has launched the show with an extended monologue of his own.

“My father was the person who had power over me,” he begins, sitting alone at a table, a rug on the floor, a teapot at his elbow, the song Picture of You by the Cure fading out.

“He was a member of the Hackney Gang — a group of friends including the Nobel Prize-winning playwright Harold Pinter and (poet polymath) Henry Woolf, now 87 and the last one alive — you’ve heard of them. He was a frustrated man, my father. I was the one he took it out on.”

Goldstein, 48, is a Sydney-reared, London–based theatre producer turned performer whose commitment to truth and belief in the transformative power of the word — along with the artist’s responsibility to tell it like it is — underpins a project that has wowed audiences in London and England’s north and will play The Netherlands later this year. On Monday it makes its Australian premiere as part of the arts and culture program of the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast.

Hailed by The Guardian as the “revolutionary potential of theatre at its best and most direct”, Truth to Power Cafe is all the more powerful for the simplicity of its premise, which sees people of all ages and backgrounds invited to respond to the question: who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?

It’s a call to self-expression, an opportunity to name what might be unconscious or tough to acknowledge — a non-violent way of taking a stand and a way to mobilise society around change.

Truth-talking to the powers that be isn’t new and can come at great cost.

Sir Thomas More discovered as much when he spoke up to King Henry VIII, placing his conscience over royal demands. Nelson Mandela spoke truth to power at the cost of his freedom when he challenged South Africa’s apartheid regime. Recently Brazilian councillor Marielle Franco was killed after publicly denouncing the violence inflicted on Rio’s favela communities by the city’s police.

Speaking truth to power was a mainstay of the civil rights and Vietnam anti-war movements. In today’s fake news, post-truth climate, set against a backdrop of grassroots movements such as #MeToo, #MarriageEquality and #BlackLivesMatter, it is widely accepted to mean saying something to those in positions of authority or trust who don’t want to hear.

Truth to Power Cafe sees ordinary people standing on stage, speaking their truth, stepping into their power, challenging ideas of who can take the stage and have a voice in the process. The witnessing audience is all part of the safe space that Goldstein has created but the participants are not, for the most part, performers. While their monologues are rehearsed, vulnerability is a given.

“When you verbalise something you start to deal with it,” Goldstein says backstage in Birmingham after a show that fin­ishes with tears, laughter and raised fists; with an incantation (“Blow our trumpets, angels!”), a standing ovation and a rousing version of David Bowie’s Heroes as recorded by Dutch alt-cabaret performer Sven Ratzke.

“Before they go on there will be that little voice whispering, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ ” Goldstein says, flashing a smile. “But everyone who has taken part, from a woman campaigning to stop the exploitation of sea mammals in the marine industry to those who’ve found themselves addicted to drugs prescribed by their GP, has found it really liberating.” (And productive: the monologue about elitist art-speak was read by the British Arts Council and reissued to staff).

A shout-out from the Gold Coast has attracted a stampede of eager Australian participants (numbers will vary each night), among them a 16-year-old Queensland slam poetry cham­pion, an Aboriginal man from the Kamilaroi region of northern NSW (who’ll throw down the gauntlet to white privilege) and Goldstein’s Brisbane-based mum, 75, who will use her five minutes to talk about her troubled relationship with her own mother.

Such brave soul-baring goes acknowledged; participants are photographed after each show, their portraits and stories documented on the Truth to Power website alongside interviews with advocates including award-winning British playwright Jonathan Harvey and New York performance artist Penny Arcade, whose shows Goldstein produces under the aegis of his company, London Arts Projects (“Proving political theatre can be fun and outrageous,” wrote Time Out, which in 2012 named Goldstein among the 100 most influential people in British culture).

Co-written with Woolf, Goldstein’s opening monologue, a revealing piece that speaks to his evolving and honest relationship with the power of his father, Mick, details the catalyst for the project.

The Hackney Gang, he tells us, was a group of poets and writers who hung out in London’s East End after the war, bonding over Luis Bunuel’s films and seeing the first performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in 1955. They were friends for 60 years.

“When my father died in 2013 I read the words ‘truth to power’ in his obituary,” says Goldstein of Mick, an inspiration for Pinter’s first and only novel, The Dwarfs, a London-set tale of male rivalry. Goldstein Sr had moved to Australia in the late 1950s on the “ten pound tourist” scheme, met Jeremy’s mother and returned to England before a family illness forced him to relocate back to Melbourne, where he worked as a computer programmer.

“I can imagine what it must have been like for my dad; Harold Pinter in the 60s was to theatre as the Beatles were to music. Dad went from writing for (influential literary magazine) The Transatlantic Review to suburban life in 70s Melbourne.” A pause. “When you don’t become the person you want to be, it causes problems.”

Beaten and undermined by his father (“His burden cast a shadow”), the younger Goldstein eventually moved to London. While father and son corresponded civilly enough, face-to-face encounters were always fraught. “I thought I was the one to blame, which made me feel like a loser,” Goldstein says. “After year of arguing over who did what to whom, the drink, the divorce, the money … we were estranged and not speaking.

“One day I wrote him with an attempt to patch things up,” he continues. “Sadly my letter arrived the day he died and he never got to read it. I had to live with the fact that our relationship was frozen in the past, or so I thought.”

In Australia, sorting through his father’s estate, Goldstein found a play, Spider Love, that his father had written (and which Goldstein is co-adapting with Woolf).

Back in London he visited the British Library, where letters between his father, Woolf and Pinter lay in a glass case next to another case containing Paul McCartney’s lyrics to Yesterday.

“I got to know my father as a young man. He wanted to be a writer but such was his loyalty to Harold and the Gang that his pride prevented him from risking failure in front of his best friends. At last it all made sense,” he says.

As Goldstein discovered what it felt like to truly forgive, the idea for Truth to Power Cafe came as he met the diminutive, sparky Woolf.

In 2016 in Trafalgar Square, representing the ACT UP coalition at an anti-Brexit rally, Goldstein put wings on his cricket whites and scaled the square’s famous plinth (“I was the angel of London that day”); his photograph was duly fashioned into a protest banner image by leading British banner maker Ed Hall, who has designed for the Tate Gallery and Venice Biennale.

“The angel motif is about me being a messenger, liaising between the living and the dead,” Goldstein says. “I think my father would be proud that I am keeping his memory alive. He’d like the line where I say, ‘My tattered wings are made from the garbage of my heart.’ ”

He pauses and smiles. “This show acknowledges that life is hard, but if you just hang in there you’ll come out the other side. The journey will be worth it.”

Truth to Power Cafe is at The Avenue, Gold Coast, from April 9 to 11 and at Bleach* Festival on 14 April