If you’re the kind of audience member who freezes in terror when some masterful character looks as if his eye is landing on you as the perfect volunteer for some assistance onstage, you might not make it past the door of the Free Word Building in Farringdon Street for an evening of People vs Democracy.
Banish the siren voices and go on in. Everyone has been volunteered for such service, to the extent that there is no audience and no performers. You and the others present are the nearest you will find to either of these categories. There is only enactment, and very topical it is too in this general election season.
You are in a society trying to make the most of its resources, human and natural. This is a kind of civic Year Zero, when the people – you – are scouring the ground for sources of energy to fuel the growth of construction, development, education, technological know-how and leisure. You are assigned a professional identity, which might be teacher, miner or builder. As you acquire knowledge, instruction, skills and material wealth, mainly through a system of haggle and barter with your fellow participants, so the shape of your society starts to emerge.
You are an integral part of that process since action is punctuated by vote-taking on important policies – shall we build on the Green Belt or go for urban high rise? Shall we keep health and education as the province of the state or introduce an element of privatisation? Turn-out levels even higher than in 1945 and 1951, not to mention more recently in Iraq.
Hundred per cent show. Even Russell Brand would have had to declare his hand. “None of the above” would have shown him up as a vacuous attention-seeker, heaven forbid.
Dramatic? Hell yeah, as Ed Milliband would almost certainly say if he were here. Chillaxed? Actually no, as David Cameron might. Catch the action at any given moment and you have groups, lobbyists, investors, conservers all, in the nicest, politest though most determined ways, trying to push their agenda through; the aim – to make the country, and thereby their own place in it, as close to their ideal as they can.
Every half hour or so, you take stock of progress, both by means of logging your own fortunes in this horse-trading, and by listening to the bigger picture as presented by two summarising journalists.
A show? Hard to say, and does it matter? In the sense that you’re not sitting in the cramped plush trying to figure out Stoppardian gags, or marvelling that Imelda Staunton can sing so well, no. But in the sense that you are playing a part and showing what you (plural) can do, hell yeah. Or indeed Crikey Yah, depending on where you’re coming from, man.
Here too is the hoary but ever-topical ghost of Winston Churchill, reincarnated now not through the strategic praises of Boris Johnson, but rather through the vaunted centrality of democracy itself. Remember it was the great, and greatly misunderstood war-leader, who said of the system that it’s the worst one apart from all the others.
How did I make out? Not well. I wanted to be a fracker, (an act of pretence if ever I heard one), my name was Blythe Frogmouth, and I was so busy monitoring everyone else (vice of my trade) that I took my eye right off the financial, industrial, educational and every other ball going.
Back in real life, my family and I are – I think – about to move house, but if I’d been as incompetent over that, we’d still be sleeping in the park, which would never have been opened to the public – ie trespassing.
But I did get involved in some fine and passionate exchanges about the balancing of diverse interests, and the effect which the outcome of such battles has on the countryside. The hidden costs of fracking, the post-war utopias that succumbed to pressure on resources, none more beleaguered than our finite land itself.
As they say about politics, or indeed the City, or journalism, or quite a few other businesses one is happy not to mention, it’s a game innit. Definitely, particularly when you look at the side-splitting, end-of-the pier, end-of-the-campaign spectacle of all the parties conjuring up a daily new tentful of pledges like so many fish kiosks.
But there’s a bit more to it than that, as the writer and director Jamie Harper (Archipeligo and People’s Theatre Camden) explains: “There is a way in which we are merging drama with game playing as a means of letting people do rather than see, of living through the consequences of the processes involved.”
If that sounds a little worthy, in the manner of a manifesto, the reality is enlightening, engaging, enormous fun and, for its duration and beyond, immensely important. Much more than Monopoly and The Mousetrap combined.
Review by Alan Franks
The People vs Democracy is at the Free Word Lecture Theatre, 60 Farringdon Road on May 7th, 8th 21st and 22nd, 19.00 – 20.30.
Saturday 2nd May 2015