Friday, 4 March 2011

Civil Unrest @ Debut

Civil Unrest, part of Coming Up festival has one clear aim – to galvanise political thought through performance, photography, debate and, curiously, food. While it certainly raises a lot of interesting issues, it’s a confusing and messy process that feels, at times a little bewildering.

But perhaps we just don’t have the cajones. On arrival at Debut, there certainly doesn't seem to be any hint of an impending revolution. We're informed tonight’s production has been delayed by half an hour. Do we kick off? Of course not. We chat politely and have a nice glass of wine. The only slight moment of disagreement comes when a man objects, very mildly, to handing over £4 for a beer. He still pays though. No need to cause a fuss.

Things heat up slightly when we’re led through police barricades into a queue for food. To set the tone for the political injustice to come, the filth, who are patrolling the venue, begin kettling us, banging their riot shields and shouting, which is effective until you remember that you’re not actually protesting your rights. There’s not a lot to be upset about when you know you’re about to receive award-winning grub from Street Kitchen’s Head Chef Mark Jankel.

The kettling process also means that the exhibition of protest photography and art suffers. Works are mounted on the chain link fences, but with the surging crowd it’s hard to take it in. A video above us plays footage from the student protests, and there's a charred painting of David Cameron, but it's all but impossible to actually look properly at the display. Perhaps that’s the point.

Sat at long wooden tables in a mock prison canteen, it’s here that the organisers' aims become clearer. Our food is presented in polystyrene trays and my hospitable fellow inmates and I get talking about the issue of prison control, debating with a fervour that the organisers were hoping for. Jankels' meat dish melts away at first touch, the roasted vegetables are tender, and the dessert, a pear cheesecake mousse, is delicious. As the prison guards bring round some Courvoisier punch, I begin to think that life in the slammer might not be so bad after all.

I worry the play is going to be overly earnest, especially as it deals with the politically charged student riots. But the actors' use of space instantly breaks down any inhibitions. They use the scaffolding mounted above us, while the tables we're sat at become beds, pavements and prison cells, as they move around and over us. Riots clash, flares are set off, and the whole thing proceeds at such a pace that there’s no time to feel awkward.

The story involves a family of siblings at each other’s throats about the rights of the police and the protestors. However the story doesn't particularly matter. The characters are merely ciphers, raising different issues. While it is clear that writer Ben Ellis is on the side of the protestors, things are not black and white. Each character, be they police or civilian, is flawed.

Though not as flawed as the event’s supposed highlight – a debate featuring amongst others, Simon Hughes MP. It's ruined by lack of time. Hughes hasn’t seen the play and so tries to use the platform for a speech to press the Lib-Con message, which is met with resistance and heckles of ‘wanker’.

The fact that there is no time for the audience to be heard is perhaps why we leave with a sense that there hasn’t been a chance to tie our thoughts together, but it seems Civil Unrest has at least succeeded in bringing a more vocal audience to this kind of theatre.

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