Friday 13 November 2009

Protest as performance

Eloquent Protest, Duke of Yorks Theatre, Sunday 8 November 2009

A review of any charity event is hamstrung from the start by the conflict between purpose and product. How can a production with such an ostensibly laudable rationale – to ‘honour those men and women who have fallen and to continue the strong tradition of artistic protest against the war’, whilst raising funds for the Mark Wright Project which helps ex-service men and women return to civilian life – be subject to robust critical scrutiny? Surely it would be better to simply heap praise on the people who ‘gave freely of their time’ to create something so worthy?

Well, not quite. Given the political character of the production, the obvious criterion by which to judge each of the various performances of music, poetry and drama that make up the show is its success in promoting the event’s implicit manifesto. Such an inflexible approach, however, neatly means neglecting to scrutinise this manifesto itself, and also ignores the potential of acts which don’t fit snugly with it. Yet, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that individual acts are always performances for both the intentions of the organisers, and the complicity of the audience, who have turned out, one can only assume, to enjoy a re-emphasis of views they already share.

Tickets for Eloquent Protest were eighteen pounds a piece. This was not a production aiming to change anyone’s minds; rather it successfully sold to an audience with the time, money and inclination to ‘come and see’. There is nothing particularly bad about this – the point of a charity event is to raise money, and money was certainly raised. But the driving idea of ‘artistic protest’ becomes problematic when equated with preaching to the choir – is the point simply to tell the audience, as Roy Bailey informed us mid-way through, that we are ‘not alone’?

Indeed, money-wise, the West End is a no brainer for this type of occasion, but wouldn’t artistic protest be better served in a location which attracts more than the liberals of central London? Organised anti-war protests have proliferated in recent decades, and using celebrities to ‘raise awareness’ has proven successful in drumming up financial support. However, for this particular event to really take off – which it certainly has the potential to do – it needs to not fall shy of connecting with broader audiences. If the organisers of Eloquent Protest believe in their own cant, they should confidently aim to reach and involve more than the West End.

For the moment, however.

Ben Griffin provided the first noteworthy act. The celebrated ex-SAS soldier who left the Army citing the illegalities of the Iraq invasion and US/Coalition tactics (though interestingly resisted the name of ‘conscientious objector’) read Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Willful Declaration’ in full. As Tony Benn later intoned, ‘it could very well have been about Iraq.’ The only lesson we learn is that we never learn. History repeats itself. Those who don’t know the past are condemned to… Yes. We know. But nobody was there to have their mind changed.

Griffin’s presence was particularly interesting because of the gag order issued by the law lords in March 2008 preventing him openly discussing his time in the SAS. Griffin was an outspoken critic of the Extreme Rendition programme that arose from the US/UK’s famed Special Relationship and saw, in Griffin’s words, ‘non-combatants… handed over to the Americans and subsequently tortured.’ Bizarrely enough, until the gag order was issued, Griffin’s claims were receiving sustained criticism from many corners – the government actually validated his remarks by telling him to shut up.

What the gag order could not prevent was Griffin using the words of others for his own purpose – hence the timely re-enactment of an almost century old protest. Griffin gave an aggressive and erudite performance that, in its relocation of an historical event to an eerily resonant present tense, neatly underscored the necessity of the proceedings as they unfolded. It also highlighted the importance of unfolding them further afield.  More impotently, Janie Dee gave a reading of Dorothy Parker’s 1937 broadcast ‘In Valencia’, a short piece that spins a bitter chuckle out of a German bombing by viewing a dead kitten and broken doll atop some ruins as ‘ruthless enemies to fascism.’ This reading was mildly irritating as it emphasised uncomfortably the hand-wringing accompanying any event whose central premise is ‘War Is Bad.’

Yes. We know. Now what?

Sometimes the performances elicited energetic feelings of potential; which were sadly fleeting, stamped out by the ‘there’s nothing we can do…’ brigade. The organisers did their best to distract us, saying we had ‘added our voices’ to those clamouring for peace, but then – how do you clamour for peace? Universally? We did that, apparently. It didn’t work. If, as the inimitable Johnnie Fiori sang in her magnificent rendition, ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, it isn’t going to come through the liberal elite gathering in an expensive West End theatre and saying ‘Ooh – isn’t it dreadful.’

A little later, the performance dabbled in more contentious territory as, after Hazel Roy had given a sidelong tribute to Dr David Kelly with Simon Armitage’s ‘Hand Washing Technique’, the comedy duo Shirley & Shirley came out wearing leotards. They proceeded, in a garish fusion of silent film and grand guignol, to produce foodstuffs of increasingly improbably sizes from their skimpy clothing, finishing their piece when one stuck a knife into the other’s head and ate her brains.

This was the first – and only – ambiguous piece, it was splendidly executed and made the audience – gulp – think, as they tried to key in the macabre antics of the Shirleys with the worthiness of their own intentions. It was a shame we didn’t see the Shirleys again, as their upskittling shenanigans had us laughing, then in true Brecht/Frisch style, asking ‘Why are we laughing at this; and why are we laughing at it here?’ They made us uncomfortable. As they should have. This was an anti-war protest attended by a lot of people – myself included – who had never fought in a war. Shouldn’t we feel uncomfortable? Isn’t that, to some extent, the point?

The most excruciatingly brutal moments came with Jason Isaacs’ readings of the letters of Private Cyrus Thatcher, a rifleman who died in Afghanistan earlier this year. Private Thatcher had, before leaving, written a note to his mother and hidden it in his house, then instructed a friend to inform his family of this should he be killed in action. Isaacs managed, somehow, to completely avoid any inclination towards mawkish sentimentality, and gave an enthusiastic performance that – whilst certainly not an impression of Private Thatcher – was not quite himself. The effect was devastating, of course, as any re-embodiment of what the media refers to as the ‘human cost’ of any conflict should be – the unknowable strangeness of war brought on those lucky enough to have avoided it by dragging the mundanities of their existences into the light and reminding them – us – that this, in fact, is what’s at stake. I challenge anyone who saw it to claim dry eyes. Mine were soaked.

Towards the end, Sam West returned to the stage and managed to excuse his earlier, bizarrely affected and overly eyebrowed performance of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ with a seething, pressurised rant of Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern’. The poem’s structural tick of building the refrain each verse with images of graphic constriction and acquiescence, coupled with West’s expectorated delivery managed to accomplish the nigh impossible feat of making the sympathetic groaners and effusive me-too-ers sitting in the audience shut up and listen. And credit must go to him for that.

Act Two opened with Fiona MacDonald’s truly terrifying performance of Ivor Novello’s ‘Soldier Lad’. The Scottish mezzo-soprano has the unerring ability to command attention by simply standing still and looking angry. Before she’d started exercising her remarkable lungs, her bellicose comportment was enrapturing and when she got going it was like falling off a building – scary as hell, exhilarating, and you didn’t want it to stop. In fact, the second half was dominated by four very different and compelling musicians, including Roy Bailey, who accompanied Tony Benn in a twenty minute interlude of political avuncularity and folk songs.

Benn’s observations focused on Greenham Common, and the farcical nature of the prosecutions against the women involved in the CND protests for working to create a disturbance of the peace. Benn cited an unnamed defendant who argued her peaceful protests hardly compared to the proliferation of nuclear arms , which had the power to ‘destroy the world several times over.’ Here was an instance of eloquent protest, and Benn’s timely reminder of the potential power wielded by those with clear purpose and impetus once again cast our own comfortable West End event in a rather shabby light. Ours was not a protest; it was a celebration of protests – not a bad thing in its own right, but unless it somehow contributed to further similar events that could somehow evince a form of change, it would unfortunately remain an exhibition, a symposium – and this is not, should not be a function that either performance or protest strive towards.

Bailey followed these sentiments with a selection of well chosen and beautifully delivered protest songs, from the ragged and tenacious school of pub carousals and village halls, at one point wondering aloud whether sing alongs were ‘done’ in the Duke of Yorks theatre before shaking it off and enthusing us to join in regardless. His was a sardonic assurance – ‘the person next to you is dying to sing, but they won’t unless you so. So sing!’ Difficult to imagine a better way of saying it, really. We were also treated, during his songs, to the sight of Benn cheerfully banging his knees and singing along from his chair as he recognised and enjoyed the music being played.

Third musician to raise the roof was Reem Kelani, a Manchester-born Palestinian who sang a song based on the words of Mahmoud Darwish, a celebrated Palestinian poet. Coming in straight after Messrs Benn and Bailey, she elicited a laugh of disbelief from the audience when echoing Bailey’s invitation for us to sing along – the fact that she was singing in Arabic aside, this woman could do things with her voice I’d hitherto thought impossible. In contrast to the caged fury we’d got from Fiona MacDonald, Reem Kelani was a dervish, beating her drum, flailing at the air, and screeching and screaming through a beguilingly energetic rendition of what she told us was a ‘celebration of life.’

Fourth, finally, was American Johnnie Fiori, who followed a reading of Dr Martin Luther King Junior’s ‘Time to Break the Silence’ with a barnstorming version of Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’. Despite her breathtaking Aretha-esque delivery, there was an unavoidable irony to her selection: if it comes, if it’s still possible, and if we can ever agree on what the hell it should be, it won’t come through the hand-wringers and the back-slappers, and it sure as hell won’t come in the Duke of Yorks Theatre.

This was an admirable event, brought off with good intentions and impressive performances. Hopefully it’ll go on to have the success it deserves, and maybe eventually we’ll be able to see it somewhere it can be put to good use.

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