Collectivism or individualism?
Corn chowder or chicken Kiev?
Long Island ice tea or Moscow mule?
Arbitrary choices made in the bar determine with whom you sit and where for The Situation Room, a clever, unsettling piece of interactive theatre that puts the audience in opposing Cold War camps to thrash out the fate of the small oil-rich nation of Al-Khadra. But while your tastebuds could be largely responsible for which ideology you represent during this war-game, your subsequent decisions – and their consequences – might well be based on motives much more unpalatable.
Game-play, tactics and strategy drive the narrative as we, members of the Politburo, led by solemn former Stalingrad hero Andrey Sergeyevich Budka (Bennett), and the National Security Council, under the command of suave CIA man Benjamin Stokely (Simon Carroll-Jones), must decide which action to take – send in a sniper, torture a rebel leader – to secure our aim: control of the region. The insistent surge of Oliver Soames’ all-encompassing sound design underlines the need for increasingly fraught decisions as our ‘advisors’ urge us on to win, win, win. As the timer hammers away – only 30 seconds to make your choice! – at the capacity for rational thought, will the competitive streak over-ride consideration for civilians on the ground? Could you sanction an assassination? Should you order a nuclear strike just to see what happens?
And, of course, it is a game; there is no real danger, no real threat to actual civilians. You can compete in earnest against your opponents, change tactics to disrupt the narrative, wait until the last tense second to throw your vote into the arena; since there’s no room for discussion between members of the same ‘team’, you are also, in a sense, playing against each other. It’s here that the boundaries of the piece’s interactivity are revealed – there’s no conferring, our decisions manifested by raising a hand or pressing a button, sometimes while blindfolded – with the binary nature of the choices similarly constraining the outcome. But rather than limiting the experience, this structure serves to reinforce again and again – supported by the dislocation of the subterranean performance space, the sepia time-shift of Hannah Sibai’s design – that decisions are made all the time with little real understanding of what they mean on the ground, in that place, for the people who live it every day. Decisions demanded in unnerving, frantic circumstances. Decisions based on strategic alliances and investment potential.
All of which makes the outcome on the night I saw The Situation Room either incredibly hopeful or a cause for despair. Because if the people in the Bike Shed with me that night were the ones making the decisions, we might just be all right. But I suspect that the wrong people are always going to be in the room, because the ones with the real power – the ones whose choices actually have weight – are going to make sure of it.