For this reviewer, Red Ladder’s recent production of Promised Land was a very personal experience. As a Yorkshireman whose parents and grandparents all grew up within spitting distance of Elland Road, the play’s themes resonated at a deeply emotional level.
Rod Dixon’s dramatisation of Anthony Clavane’s award-winning book about Leeds, its football team, identity, belonging, rootedness and integration is an impressive attempt to tell the relatively unknown story of a city built, as the theme song declares, “by the sweat of strangers” (the six or so songs in the show actually embellish the story without turning it into an overly kitsch full blown musical).
The play’s two protagonists Nathan and Caitlin embody very different parts of the Leeds story. Caitlin, an Irish Catholic from Beeston (just like my mum), is an anti-fascist activist and university dropout, whilst Jewish Nathan is from north Leeds and finds his identity at the top of the Elland Road Kop. Even as the play ends and they part, you are left wondering who you really empathise with more – Caitlin as she heads off on the train to London to “make something of her life” or Nathan, who decides not to get on the train because, as he says, “I am Leeds.”
The play cleverly weaves together the different narratives about Leeds and Leeds United familiar to many, most notoriously that of ‘Dirty Leeds’. The bloody-minded repetition of the “robbed, cursed, cheated” triptych as the play opens powerfully articulates the angst of many Leeds fans to this day, foundationally built on the ‘injustice’ of the European Cup Final loss of 1975.
Clavane, and his co-writer Nick Stimson, manage to draw you into the Leeds of the early 70s, with the real hope of Leeds United finally becoming kings of Europe, against a dark backdrop of racism, recession and the Yorkshire ripper. They also successfully transport you back to the Jewish ghetto of the early twentieth century where a father and daughter argue about how to respond to anti-semitism and prejudice – hide away and say nothing, or try to integrate and contribute.
Throughout the production the paradoxical nature of Leeds and Leeds United is readily apparent. A city seemingly happy to be standing alone with few friends, yet at the same time wanting to be appreciated, even admired, not only for the often unacknowledged quality of football played by its famous Revie side, but perhaps for the largely unknown story of a gritty northern city with a genuinely cosmopolitan history, a city built in 100 years by “Irish, Scottish, Jewish and Yorkshire”.
As the play ends, and with the hope of an imminent takeover at Elland Road, Leeds and its people begin to dream again of the Promised Land. Although they know that, like the nomadic Jewish people in the biblical narrative, there may yet be more wandering in the desert before the promise is fulfilled, they still dream that, in the words of the song, “from the mills and the sweatshops and the old back to backs – a Leeds United will come”.
British Future held a panel discussion following the Sunday matinee production of Promised Land on identity and belonging in the heart of Yorkshire. Watch the video of it below: