We are handed a slip of paper. On it, two phrases in Turkish and Arabic: ‘Everywhere Taksim. Everywhere resistance.’ ‘The people. Demand. The downfall. Of the Regime.’ An actor (Khalid Abdalla) rehearses the words, and we repeat them. Even inside the walls of a theatre they carry an electrical charge.
The first person onstage is the director: ‘Tonight, we are trying something new,’ David Lan announces. ‘This is something we have not done before.’ Based on Paul Mason’s 2012 book on the global uprisings of 2011, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere imagines theatre as a laboratory for political action.
Jeremy Herbert’s tarp and plywood set summons to the stage the squatted buildings abandoned by capital and repurposed by activists the world over. The exposed brick work of the Maria Theatre behind Occupy scaffolding announces on the one hand: ‘You are a part of a global uprising,’ On the other: You’re an audience inside a theatre.’
We are poised on the cusp of real and fictive spaces, where dreaming becomes reality, and reality dissolves into dream – a crucible, into which reality is crushed and the audience invited to experiment – with Maalox, a white substance used by activists to counter the effects of tear gas, and by making our own gasmasks and placards.
Ali Hossaini’s and Peter Rice’s design (video and sound, respectively) cuts raw and broadcast news footage with citizen media, which grew out of the global justice movement in the 90s, and was collectivized into a global Indymedia network through the climate justice movements of the 2000s. By 2011, it had become meme, and organizations sprung up in Moscow, Cairo, Istanbul, and elsewhere.
During the last 20 years, protest has emerged as a global artform – in the work of artists like the Yes Men, Pussy Riot, and Oliver Ressler, and among activists themselves. The ‘tactical frivolity’ of clown armies and samba bands raise morale and undermine the opposition of activists and police, while ‘performative democracy’ has invigorated activists with new strategies of resistance and survival. In order to challenge a dominant reality – the thinking runs – you must create and inhabit your own. Which is what theatre allows us to do: act out the world as you wish it to be.
Mason – a former Channel 4 News and Newsnight journalist – knows inside and out how the blunt instrument of media bludgeons facts, narrative, and experience into spectacle. ‘That’s me,’ he says, pointing up at a projection engulfing three walls: ‘Filming. I was there.’ This isn’t just existential testimony. It tethers the distant spectacle of protest and revolt to the physical world, where action can take place. The spectacle implodes, leaving a sticky residue of reality clinging to the walls where it unfolds as projection. The narrative is reality. And we – the audience – are inside it, invited to act.
Kicking Off does away with a central protagonist, constructing theatre as agora, the centre of Greek civic life, and source of the verb agoreúō, ‘I speak in public’. ‘You are the people,’ Lan tells us. ‘You are these characters. And you have a responsibility to them. To represent them.” From the audience, enlisted as crowd, individuals step forward to voice words from Syntagma Square. After the performance, we are invited to offer our own.
Through the bodies of the actors a polyphony of characters seep into the theatre: A single mother, working full time, mired in student debt. An Egyptian blogger writing from prison on the autism of belief. Football fans, sent by Mubarak to crack protestor skulls, who wind up joining them. An aged Greek woman who castrated Nazis in the 40s, stood up to the Junta in the 70s, and now resists the European Central Bank.
For political struggle to succeed, each generation must draw strength from those that have been before. Oral histories, once passed down political consciousness between generations, have been drowned out by what British filmmaker Peter Watkins called the ‘monoform’ – the linear narrative whose hidden ideology has become the measure of all achievement in audiovisual media. It’s this form that Kicking Off seeks to disrupt.
Kicking Off plants the seed for a new kind of political theatre that unites the thrill of participation with radical democracy. As an expression of that new kind of theatre though, it doesn’t quite deliver. It is hard to see how the level of interactivity required to realize the show’s vision could have been achieved in an hour. The audience is simply too busy trying to hang onto what’s happening. The invitation to experiment with the tools of protest and tweet thoughts therefore feels gestural.
Brecht, whose prescription for the stage of a man describing a car crash offers the framework for Kicking Off, also had a preferred attitude for audiences: relaxation An audience needs to be relaxed to the point of boredom to sincerely reflect and figure out how to interact with what’s on stage. Toneelgroep’s six-hour Roman Tragedies remounted at the Barbican last month was an object lesson in why interactive performance needs time. It’s through the unfolding of the performance itself that people figure out how to respond to it.
Kicking Off has been criticized for failing to provide an answer to the question of what to do next. This criticism is levelled often at formally radical work in Britain. The point of work like this is to reject didactic, linear narratives and easy answers. Yes, this requires the audience to complete the work by thinking – and acting – for themselves, but you do not need to be a political theorist to get this stuff. You just need to be curious enough to try. Audiences in other countries do not seem to have a problem with it. Besides, there is an answer – just before the show tumbles from optimistic experiments in popular power into a 2016 flatspin, which montages the rise of Trump and right-wing nationalist populism. An Occupy activist explains: “It’s the 99% that is coming to save itself. There is no Batman, dude. The superhero who’s gonna save us – is us”.