The futility, the boggling arbitrariness of much of the Cold War is explored by Oscar Mike in a new show which combines theatre with gaming, putting the audience at the centre of a crisis in fictional Al-Khadra in 1962, a war-torn middle-eastern country over which the USA and the USSR jostle for ideological dominance. The audience are split into two halves, each half assuming the role of one of the two countries.
Before the show begins, as you mill about in a rather chilly basement holding room (not as bad as it sounds; there’s a bar), two performers, Robert Macpherson and Simon Carroll-Jones, approach audience members seemingly at random. ‘Vodka or whisky?’ they ask, apparently sorting us into different camps. ‘Yeltsin or Bush Senior?’ Carroll-Jones looks over his shoulder at Macpherson as he hands you a red or blue poker chip and, smiling, murmurs, ‘Don’t trust Rob.’
The colour of the poker chip decides your new country for you, whether you’ll be USA or USSR. You then file into a long room with chairs lined up down two opposite walls, one line for each nation. The use of chance and snap-decision to assign audience members a ‘side’ makes it all feel like a game – which The Situation Room is, of course, partly. But the implication here is that the Cold War was something of a game as well, at least to the men in suits, safely removed from any human cost.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprises by saying too much, but the brief first section of the show takes the form of a Prisoner’s Dilemma game – a quandary which could be said to form the basis of the Cold War itself. It may also be familiar to some audience members as the final round of a gameshow, short-lived Robert Kilroy-Silk vehicle Shafted. Though fun and effective for setting the tone, it feels a little removed from the narrative that begins as it ends.
When the audience remove the blindfolds required for the game, the pally ‘Rob’ and ‘Simon’ who led us in are gone, replaced by Andrey Sergeyevich Budka and Benjamin R. Stokely, respectively. Budka is a decorated war hero tasked with winning the war in Al-Khadra for the USSR and Stokely his dapper, Harvard-educated opposite number in the US.
As Stokely, Carroll-Jones is poised and cool; he moves with a dancer’s absolute self-control but has a way of leaving his mouth open, as if he’s forgotten to close it, that looks curiously correct and American. He’s all charm and smiles, though there’s something steely and horrifying about him that’s barely concealed, while Macpherson as Budka maintains a quiet, understated nobility throughout that seems right for a man who saw Stalingrad. Both struggle with the accents here and there, but still turn in gripping performances, with neat direction from Tom Mansfield and James Blakey.
As the conflict in Al-Khadra progresses, Budka turns to a council of advisors to decide the next step, while Stokely generally consults the President, the Vice-President – the one lone man at the top of the pile. It creates an interesting distinction in audience experience from one side of the room to the other and from night-to-night that makes you want to see the show more than once.
What unfolds in The Situation Room is sometimes like a play, sometimes a game and sometimes a little bit like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel – and in the beautifully dramatic setting of Shoreditch Town Hall’s underbelly, the things we are asked to decide, though we know it is only pretend, begin to feel horribly important. Perhaps because we feel suddenly aware that decisions like this have been made for real, with real repercussions, by people not unlike us. There are all kinds of ideas in here and though not everything quite comes off, it makes for a very lively, fun and engaging whole that will leave you with plenty to think about.