Hofesh Shechter’s Political Mother was originally commissioned by Brighton Dome and Festival, Sadler’s Wells and Movimentos – Festwochen der Autostadt in Wolfsburg. For this new ‘choreographer’s cut’ of the work, Shechter opts to have most of the audience standing beneath the staging, creating an almost gig-like atmosphere. The piece takes the idea of the kinaesthetic power of dance one step further than usual, freeing up the audience to respond to the action on stage.
Shechter’s previous experiments with a set-up like this, at the Roundhouse with In Your Rooms and Uprising, allowed the whole audience to stand up and move around. At Sadler’s Wells the space is more difficult to negotiate and less flexible than that at the Roundhouse and this unfortunately means that some audience members will have to remain seated throughout the piece. Those who had to stay in their seats were detached from the energy of the rest of the crowd; so if you book for this show and are able to stand up for an hour and a quarter, I’d highly recommend you do so.
The name of the piece, Political Mother, is a loaded one. How can the concept of the Mother, this warm and bodily force, connect with that of the Political, the intellectual and impersonal? From the very beginning, trance-like drums fill the performance space like a heartbeat. This onslaught of rhythm and noise, created by over 20 musicians performing live on stage, mirrors the process of indoctrination. Shechter understands that extremism is fuelled by manipulating the emotions of the crowd rather than through the finer points of political discussion.
Both the dancers and the spectators are made to move beneath the orchestra, making them appear belittled and insignificant. The choreography meanwhile moves from bursts of frenzied joy to fractured repetitive movements, the performers’ bodies shaking and twitching like victims of PTSD. Hints of gross political wrongs litter the stage: guns and Guantanamo jump-suits. But the dancers continue, complying with the distorted voice of The Politician – played by Shechter himself – as he screams over the mass of drummers behind him.
The piece as a whole is let down by its quieter sections; during these scenes only one long drone or the sound of a few stringed instruments can be heard, in marked contrast with the passion of the full orchestra. The dancers form themselves into various poses of oppression and dispossession, but these scenes somehow feel limp in comparison with the production’s moments of mania. Political Mother works best when allowing the audience participation in the indoctrination process, creating a physical understanding of how people get drawn into such things; it is not an attack on a specific moment in history.
The final flourish, where a seemingly intellectual aphorism is projected onto the back wall, creates an expectation of wisdom which does not come. The line is bathetically undermined when the second part of the sentence is revealed. Without ruining the surprise, Shechter is playing a game with us: we’ll swallow anything if it’s portrayed in a persuasive way.