Sheltering from the rain after a show, I get talking to an American man in a café. It is rare for me to accept overtures at conversation in cafes but his is the only free table and it has a plug. He asks what I do and he starts talking about his friend who is a professor of German History. Apparently, it’s very difficult to be a conservative professor in an American university. His liberal colleagues prevent him from telling students ‘the facts’ of what happened. Oh God, I think, what ‘facts’ might he mean?
In Barrel Organ’s new show CONSPIRACY, three people examine a blown-up replica of the iconic, depression-era photograph ‘Lunch Atop A Skyscraper’ and try to explain what’s really behind the image. Why do we only know the names of five of the eleven men? Why are there only five sandwiches if they are all supposed to be eating lunch? Crucially, what’s being covered up? Over the course of an hour, performers Rose Wardlaw, Azan Ahmed and Shannon Hayes spin out interpretations that range from the plausible to the crackpot – something to do with an Illuminati-esque secret society, the space race, and buried bodies on the moon.
Watching CONSPIRACY feels like watching a show in the process of being devised (the text was written by Jack Perkins and co-created with members of the company); under Dan Hutton’s direction, there is an improvisatory quality to proceedings. The performers are spinning stories, playing games, seeing how far they can push an idea. Sometimes the material feels too slight to maintain interest; the show never quite justifies why we should care.
The real interest lies not in the conspiracy theories the performers come up with, but in watching the dynamics between them unfold. Rose Wardlaw is a delight to watch as the controlling orchestrator of proceedings and the most committed conspiracy theorist. Azan Ahmed and Shannon Hayes entertainingly manifest their annoyance and resentment towards her, though it does feel more like office politics than high stakes drama. Hayes is the most playful of the characters and her clash with Wardlaw generates the main conflict of the play. Ahmed plays a gullible character who becomes suddenly, alarmingly violent.
Rosie Elnile’s set evokes a cross-between a police incident room and a podcast recording studio. The image at the centre of show covers a large whiteboard. The performers annotate it with red pen and attach ‘evidence’, piling up documents and photographs. The design gives a material weight to conspiracy theories, which might otherwise remain an abstract concept. The reveal in the last five minutes of the show is tantalising. It seems to promise an exploration of why conspiracy theories are so attractive in the current political climate and the implications of post-truth for our society. It is frustrating that the show does not explore these questions further, delve deeper; so much of the show remains on the surface. Then again, as Ahmed says, maybe it is the search for the answer rather than the answer itself that is the exciting bit. Any explanation, however clever, would be disappointing.
CONSPIRACY is on at Underbelly Cowgate till 25th August. More info here.