This feels like it will be half a review. Half a review because, as a show made with community members and non-professional performers around the country, Acts of Resistance is as much for its participants as for the audience. This isn’t to say that work with communities doesn’t frequently create incredible shows, enjoyed by wide and varied audiences – it absolutely does. But I would argue that this is the kind of show where the process matters more than the final product – how the show was created, how the participants felt as it developed. And I have no way of knowing what that was like – all I can do is talk about what I saw, so that’s what I’ll do.
The culmination of Headlong’s outreach project, Headlong Futures, Acts of Resistance was created from four individual shows that were made with different community groups in four different locations (young people in Bristol, ex-military personnel in Plymouth, elderly people in Kendal and a community centre in Mansfield). These four plays were then combined by Stef Smith into one show with four interweaving narratives.
It may be this process that gives the show a sense of containing too many disparate strands, while simultaneously forcing all the different threads to be too tightly focused on single issues. Each slice of story is given too little space to really explore the specificity of each location, with each place being assigned an issue (Bristol – gentrification, Mansfield – the lasting impact of the miners strike, Plymouth – fishermen and the navy, Kendal – fracking) to reflect where it’s set. A sensible choice in itself, it ends up feeling like the speed these issues have to be moved through (as well as added conversations about subjects from opportunities for young people to the value of stay at home mothers), means that there is only the most perfunctory sense of grounding the plot in its place (such as a throw-away line about a father’s misplaced optimism that City will win the league). The issues have to be covered in the quickest, most straightforward way, with characters clearly laying out exactly what they think in occasionally awkward sentences before moving on to the next topic.
Giving all the stories one point of connection also gives rocky results. Resistance against fracking weaves its way throughout the show, with all the storylines culminating in a massive anti-fracking protest at Westminster. While I think resistance to fracking is a fascinating topic to explore, especially the key role older people have played in it (as the Kendal storyline touches on), in the show it feels less like a subject in and of itself than a stand-in for political anger. This is shown quite literally in the story, where several of the characters attend the final protest simply because it is a protest, the biggest and soonest one they can attend. This mix of trying to cover too many issues while treating the overarching one as mostly a symbol gives the play a sense of being about politics without actually being political.
And maybe the way the show was made meant that was inevitable. Finding one issue that all the different participating groups could not only agree on but felt passionate about would be almost impossibly difficult, as would allowing each strand to focus only on its own issue whilst making a cohesive, compelling whole. But to me it felt like acknowledging these difficulties themselves could have been more interesting than trying to fit everything into one show. Logistical considerations aside, I also found the fact that the final show was only being performed in Bristol, rather than any of the other locations the performers came from, a little odd.
I think my problems with the show were increased by its framing – both the copy and some of the text in the play itself seemed to be setting up the situation of rising anger leading to unexpected revolution (whether that be personal or en masse). The copy reads, ‘But what would happen if people stopped keeping calm and carrying on? What if hope came from the most unexpected place…?’ But I feel like rather than some wave of anger and revolution, what the play showed instead was something perhaps more politically real – that modern revolution is hard because it feels like there is just So Much. So many things to be angry about and not enough time in the day to protest them all. So much personal and political anger mixed up until they can’t be separated – anger at each other and the past and a feeling of complete powerlessness. And all these things we care about clashing with everyone else until cries of rebellion feel submerged into a texture of white noise. Maybe this is the message of the play – but if it is, it is concealed by the bulk of arguments onstage.
While the show doesn’t coalesce, there are some great moments in the writing, especially when humour is brought in. There are loads of delightful, surprising punchlines, which often serve to deliver the play’s political points better than its more stilted debates. I particularly loved one moment where a young girl almost emotionlessly explains to her grandmother why their town is the optimal place to be living for inevitable climate disaster – a single line which is both hilarious and enlightening, showing deftly how generations are affected by the environment. And the performers are fantastic as well, creating deft chemistry between the characters and delivering moments of real tenderness. The woman playing Mercy has a particularly electric pull on the audience, with a well-balanced mix of charisma and vulnerability.
The moment which, for me, most successfully uses the specific context of the show is near the end, where the whole cast chants in protest onstage while four women – one from each location, sing together. It is utterly beautiful. Part of this is down to the incredible voices of the singers, but it is also the sheer power of so many bodies onstage, and the knowledge that until a couple of days ago these women had never met, yet their voices come together so perfectly.
After this moment there is an epilogue which the play’s most politically astute moment – an acknowledgement that while marches can be cathartic, they are never the end of the story, that the hard work of political and personal change must continue, and what that future must hold is always uncertain.
Acts of Resistance ran from 7-8 April at Bristol Old Vic. More info here.