There’s a phrase that crops up often at the moment, around the echoing halls of social media; “check your privilege”, it says, to anyone living a fairly comfortable western life, who might be tempted to feel hard done by. If there’s one person in that category who never seems to need reminding of his privilege, though, it’s the writer and performer Shôn Dale-Jones, whose remarkable monologue The Duke appears next week at the Traverse Theatre, after a Scotsman Fringe First-winning run at the Edinburgh Festival of 2016. The Duke tells the semi-autobiographical tale of Shôn, his mum, and their complex relationship with a china figure of the Duke of Wellington that his late Dad bought, cherished, and kept in a shoe-box under the bed; these days, The Duke also has a touring companion in the shape of Shôn’s 2017 show Me And Robin Hood, which he performs in Perth this weekend.
And it’s not only the sheer theatrical quality of these semi-autobiographical shows that makes them remarkable; for in a unique gesture, born of his profound sense of his own good fortune, Dale-Jones writes and performs these two shows for free, in theatres that almost always offer him the free use of their space. And he charges the audience nothing; only asking them, at the end, to make whatever donation they can to his two chosen charities – Save The Children’s Emergency Appeal in the case of The Duke, and Street Child United for Me And Robin Hood. So far, between them, the shows have raised almost £70,000 for the two charities; and Dale-Jones is now working on ways of developing this model, so that he can share it with other interested companies across the theatre world.
“I think people often feel powerless in relation to the suffering and injustice they see on the news every day,” says Dale-Jones. “We often just don’t know how to relate to it; and that’s one of the themes I try to explore in The Duke – in both shows, really. So this is one way of taking something we would be doing anyway – making a show, hosting a show, going to see a show – and using it to make a difference, however small.”
Dale-Jones, who turns 50 this year, has been conscious of leading a fortunate life from the moment in his teens when his parents – bringing up five children in the Anglesey town of Llangefni, in North Wales – decided to take their youngest out of the local comprehensive and send him to a nearby boarding school, to improve his chances of getting to university. At boarding school, Dale-Jones discovered the joys of theatre, both sketch-writing and performing; and as a theatre studies student at the University of East Anglia, he experienced another stroke of luck when Clive Mendus of the legendary theatre company Complicité arrived to direct a show with his student group, an encounter which eventually inspired Dale-Jones to co-found his own company, Hoi Polloi, now celebrating its 25th year.
“At first, Hoi Polloi was very much an ensemble, creating the kind of visual and physical theatre that Complicite had pioneered in Britain,” says Dale-Jones. “But there came a point when I began to feel that I needed to jump into a different aesthetic. I wanted to rethink how the theatre I was making was really talking about life.” The result was Dale-Jones’s acclaimed 2006 solo show Floating, in which he adopted the character of one Hugh Hughes, a fictionalised version of himself, and began to explore his own story, through a fantasy about Anglesey floating off into the Atlantic. And for the next seven years, the Hugh Hughes persona served him well, as he developed a series of successful and beautifully written solo shows.
In 2013, though, when he was working in his home town of Llangefni on a National Theatre of Wales promenade show involving tales of his childhood, he began to feel restless again. “It was a strange time,” says Dale-Jones. “The Syrian war had already been going on for two years, and increasingly I couldn’t believe that we were just letting so much suffering happen. Also, I have one daughter, who was reaching the point of leaving home; and I suddenly felt, as that phase of my life ended, that I had the time and capacity to do more.
“And that was how I began to write The Duke. I knew all the time that I was doing it for the people caught up in the refugee crisis. I spoke to Anthony Alderson at the Pleasance about bringing it to the Fringe, and he became the first venue director to offer me a space free of charge; and it has just grown from there.”
Significantly, too, in writing The Duke, Dale-Jones dropped the character of Hugh Hughes, and began to write as himself. After The Duke, he wrote Me And Robin Hood, about his time at boarding school, driven by a real anger at his own privilege, and at the growing inequality we allow to disfigure our society. And today, Dale-Jones says he feels more fulfilled in his work, creating and performing these shows, than at any other time in his career.
“The response we’ve had, both from audiences and from the theatre world, has just been amazing,” he says, “and that gives me so much energy and motivation. And although I know this particular financial model can’t last for ever, doing this just seems much more meaningful to me, at the moment, than anything else I might be doing. I love it; and wherever I am, I always just hope that the audience will feel the same, and give whatever they can.”
Me And Robin Hood is at Perth Theatre this evening, 31 March; The Duke is at the Traverse, Edinburgh, 3-5 April.