You meet somewhere. You’re texted the location. There are nine of you, mostly strangers, gathered under a bridge.
You look jumpily at passersby together. Someone asks “Did that guy in that car over there take a photo of us?” None of you are sure. “I don’t know how many of us there’s meant to be,” you say to each other, nervously. Then you get another text. You walk together, joking.
“Get into character, then.”
“Don’t know what character yet. They’ll give it to me, won’t they?”
You’re met by a handler, Mitchell (Olwen May), at a leisure centre. She rubs her eyes, leads you to a poky kitchen, and tells you what a code ninety-nine is: a cup of tea. Names are checked. Three of you will be on comms (texting), and you volunteer so you can continue to take notes for this review on your phone.
This is a last-minute operation, you’re told. This is also Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s immersive theatrical experience, Operation Black Antler: infiltrating a far-right group as part of an undercover operation. Headfirst into that murky moral swamp. Mitchell references the cases of agents engaging in relationships under false pretences, fathering children, wrecking lives, but is in no doubt of the importance of the work she oversees.
You’re divided into “units” of three – ensuring people who have come together are separated – and you’re put in a group with two older white men to figure out aliases; the reasons for your being at the targeted pub with each other, and false occupations and interests which might give you common ground with your person of interest.
This where you’re suddenly thrown off by one of your unit, as you sit in silence trying to work out how your supply teacher persona would know these two tech friend personas they’ve come up with, suggesting that you be his girlfriend. He is much older than you, and you obviously don’t blame him for reading your pre-everything trans man body as belonging to a woman, but it panics you and you wonder – baselessly – how far you’ll be called upon to go along with this pretence. It affects how well you integrate with the actors, later. But you’re tired of identity taking up your time and thoughts and reviews, and try to ignore that when Mitchell notes “They love a non-white recruit,” you’re the only person fitting that description here.
To the pub (real, no set). Who here is being paid or paying to be here, besides the bar staff and genuine customers? It’s heaving, and you enter staggered, in your units. You see your target, Paul (Simon Bradshaw) quickly, due to his helpfully wearing a red cap like in the photo you saw of him. The police want you to uncover the fraud they think he’s committing as well as his involvement in the far-right group’s activity.
In practice, this is very difficult. A man from another unit plunges in and gets on famously with Paul, arms around each other’s shoulders, while you stand around awkwardly making small talk with other “characters”. You’re gatecrashing a fundraiser, but the people are welcoming. You and the two others in your unit are a little awkward, and don’t get too far with Paul – one slip up with one of your aliases makes him rightfully aggressive and suspicious. You reply to texts asking you what you’ve found out with the bits and pieces he’s let on to you. Some of your time is taken up with two men who you later find out are fellow “undercover agents” – audience members – also targeting Paul. They made the same mistake about you.
Debriefing afterwards, others have had far more success: uncovered a plot, found weaknesses which can be exploited. There’s a decision to be made, as to whether around-the-clock surveillance is warranted against one of the men, changing his life forever. It’s a decision that’s made for you instantly by the man who hit it off with your target, who is, indeed, entirely immersed. “I could get more out of him, for sure, if put back in,” he says.
Other units would likely have a better discussion of the moral issues Operation Black Antler wants you to consider, depending on how peripheral to the plot or sympathetic their character is, or the personalities of other fellow “agents”.
It’s smoothly crafted, using both community and professional actors, sending nine “agents” in every fifteen minutes, one hundred and eight over the course of the evening. And they set the right questions in your mind: about the action of buying a ticket for this, about becoming these characters, about the more working-class accents assumed by these very middle-class-seeming people to ingratiate themselves with their targets, about how experiences doing this will vary widely depending on if you’re a confident white bloke (like the guy who took to this like a duck to water) or a black Muslim woman. But despite the line about non-white recruits and the long-running wish of parts of the right to enfold minorities into their anti-immigration, anti-Muslim cause, some people wouldn’t get very far in real life with Jack Renshaw’s National Action (for instance) because of who they are.
Luckily, this isn’t National Action or the EDL or the Atomwaffen Division: this is Operation Black Antler, which is open to anyone. And although you’d hope that anyone can learn something from this essentially quite weird experience, some are going to get more bang for their right-wing infiltrating buck than others. Maybe it pays, most of all, to dwell on that.
Operation Black Antler is on until 13th April, and is ticketed by Southbank Centre. More info here.