At around the forty minute mark of Protest Song, you get a strange sensation that here, tonight, anything could happen. As two hundred people chant “Boris Johnson is a massive cunt” and sing along to a radical revision of the Twelve Days of Christmas, there’s an odd feeling of anarchy and potential as we, led by Rhys Ifans’ Danny, feel like the play might persuade us to march onto the streets. The sense of spontaneity created by Ifans’ interactions with the audience gives you that bubbling sensation of hope in the pit of your stomach. By the end of the seventy minutes, however, that glorious emotion is smashed against the wall like Merle Hensel’s design, broken and devastated.
Tim Price’s monologue charts how Danny – a rough sleeper with a self-professed alcohol problem in the Square Mile – became politicised during the Occupy movement in late 2011. Initially, he heads into the tents for the company and warmth, and for a long time admits “avoiding the politics” of the whole thing, failing to see how the whole struggle affected him. In one startling moment, however, he stops as he recounts his realisation that “everything – every fucking thing – is connected”. He becomes a central figure in the camp, contributes to its running and – most importantly – gets the biggest approval possible, as he achieves consensus.
It’s testament to Ifans’ skill as an actor that, as he describes this moment of hundreds of people waving their hands in the air, it achieves the same clarity of purpose and potential for dissent as the three-fingered kiss in The Hunger Games. He fluctuates between limping, scatty verbosity lumbering around the stage putting the world to rights and quiet, deeply affecting contemplation. There’s an ease to Ifans’ portrayal of Danny, and our sympathy for him grows with the piece.
There’s an interesting strand about identity running throughout Protest Song, as Price asks us to consider the ways in which individuals are viewed by a collective and vice versa. Throughout, Danny alternates between a variety of descriptors for himself, and his understanding of who he is changes as he becomes part of a movement. Similarly, his descriptions of his friends in the camp, like “Wookie” and “Danny from the Kitchen”, changes as the two parties accept one another. We are also asked to contemplate our own reactions to the homeless, as Ifans eyeballs audience members and asks “Would you touch a rough sleeper?”
Polly Findlay’s production subtly excavates these themes, allowing the ideas to penetrate over time rather than confronting them head-on. The routine and order Danny continually discusses is reflected in her choice of simplified staging in Merle Hensel’s design, as a final coup shifts our perspective and gives some striking visual images. Lee Curan’s lighting design follows similar patterns, as we begin with house lights up but find ourselves in darkness before we know it. Like Danny, we are at the whim of these forces and taken along for the ride.
Protest Song doesn’t strike me as a play necessarily ‘about rough sleepers’ (though it’s interesting that two shows at the Shed in recent months have considered the idea of home and belonging). Instead, Price delves into the heart of what hope is and how it affects us, how we can get caught up in the rhetoric of hopeful ideology without contemplating its implications. The final few moments – though powerful – do run the risk of undermining the whole endeavour, but probing the aftermath of Occupy is undoubtedly necessary and asks questions we may not have previously considered.
Either way, singing “Boris is a cunt” to the tune of “Five go-old rings” with a load of strangers is a brilliant way of getting you in the festive spirit. Merry Christmas indeed.