Common Wealth make theatre that’s rooted in socialist politics. Their work is site-specific and their aim is to make theatre for people who don’t usually think it’s for them. At their latest performance I Have Met The Enemy (and the enemy is us), the audience is ushered into Byker Community Centre, in the guise of an arms fair, and encouraged to listen to various business pitches promoting the use of weaponized technology. It’s an unsettling start to a show that demonstrates ambition and energy, but fails in bringing all its disparate parts together to make a coherent whole.
If you are an anxious person then I Have Met The Enemy (and the enemy is us) is probably not for you. As much as I’m interested in the deconstruction of the traditional theatre-going experience, I find the reality of immersive performance difficult to embrace. For example, at one point each audience member is required to hold a reflective metronome while a performer, standing opposite, talks about an important character in their life. During this part of the show, I don’t make eye contact with anyone. I keep my arms crossed and try my best to indicate that I would rather not take part. I still get chosen to participate. I wish I was the type of person who could embrace this sort of interaction but I’m not. There wasn’t an option to refuse, either. I was so nervous that I couldn’t process what was being said. I wanted to listen. I was too overwhelmed by awkwardness and embarrassment to give the words my fullest attention.
Perhaps that’s the aim, though. Making the audience feel uncomfortable in the space does make thematic sense. The moral implications of Britain’s role in selling arms are confronting, and should make us uneasy. Here shared experience also equates to shared responsibility, shared discomfort.
I Have Met The Enemy (and the enemy is us) exists in a dystopian dreamscape which is both alien and disturbingly familiar. Robbie Thomas’ design evokes an awareness of encroaching menace. We are somewhere between a battlefield and Berghain. Towers made of mirrored metronomes emit low vibrations and intermittent ticking noises. The use of lasers and the techno soundtrack is well-integrated. When Mo’min Swaitat takes us through the process of crossing a military checkpoint, his mission is to get us to a rave. Alexander Eley discusses his relationship with DJ-ing and how it helped him to find a welcoming community outside of the army. For me, this section was the most compelling and seemed to be the beginning of a dynamic story about conflict and techno and the spaces in-between. But, like much of I Have Met The Enemy (and the enemy is us), it’s underdeveloped. Shatha Altawai, a Yemeni artist, appears by pre-recorded video. She talks about why she paints and the warmth of her family home before the war changed things. Her moving fragments of testimony get lost in the wider randomness of the action, which could benefit from more structure and precision. It’s hard to hear the community cast in the echoing hall and it’s not always clear what’s happening. I found the experience more disorientating than powerful.
I admire I Have Met The Enemy (and the enemy is us) for its willingness to experiment. I think it’s crucial to push boundaries, to challenge the status-quo and to interrogate why and how we make theatre (as well as who we make it for). Reading the literature around the development process, I can see how much heart has gone into this production. But ultimately I felt that the ideas behind it were too vast for it to contain.I Have Met the Enemy is at Byker Community Centre, Newcastle till 26th October. More info here.
Review: I Have Met the Enemy (and the enemy is us) Show Info
Directed by Eve Manning and Rhiannon White
Written by Devised by Common Wealth in collaboration with Alexander Eley, Mo’min Swaitat, Shatha Altawai and writer Hassan Mahamdaille
Cast includes Alexander Eley, Mo’min Swaitat, Shatha Altowai and Byker Community Cast (Cooper McDonough, David Beech, Lee Foster, Majid Jalali, Nadia Rafi, Sherilyn Oliphant and Tia Bell-Easton).
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