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Project Dictator at the New Diorama Theatre | Review

Julian Spooner and Matt Wells’ characters have names, but as they aren’t listed in the programme, I’ll keep faith with it. In any event, their roles are reversed part way through, because there’s a disagreement between the characters as to the direction in which the show within the show is going – in the second half, however, there is very suddenly zero room for disagreement, as the duo are now clowns in a different show where the production team reigns supreme.

Project DictatorThe effect is immediately disorienting, with the audience previously having been presented with (or subjected to, dependent on one’s disposition) a rowdy political rally complete with calls and responses, and answers to pertinent questions that were simultaneously very different to the kind of replies politicians tend to give, and of a similar quality. Or, to put it another way, some political ‘leaders’ may as well blow raspberries for all the nonsense that comes out of their mouths.

At first glance, the clown scenes come across like almost any other drama about drama: the clowns are presented with scripts that must be followed to the letter, and the on-stage musician (Khaled Kurbeh) is presented with a score. The instructions are to be obeyed: when Wells’ clown strays from it, a buzzer sounds, and the scene is repeated from the beginning. Punishment is administered for repeat offences, although the audience is spared witnessing whatever it is that goes on, and an anarchic ending raises more questions than it answers.

It is, in a word, bizarre, but I suspect it also gives rise to some interesting conversations between patrons afterwards (the theatre is set up for post-show discussions, with free slices of pizza available for a limited period after the show, thanks to a deal struck with the Camden branch of Dominos Pizza). There are some energetic performances to enjoy, although the autocracy of the clown show’s production team, a most unsubtle metaphor for an authoritarian political regime, isn’t portrayed as brutally as it could have been. No characters die, for instance, and everyone is accounted for by the end, which contrasts with the stark reality of people who push back against their government in an undemocratic society disappearing without trace, sometimes never to return, leaving their relatives without so much as a body to bury.

What is said by the ‘producers’, who become known to the audience only in the form of invisible voices, and how it is said, could feasibly pass for actual directions given to actors in a show. This makes the comparison between a show and a despotic regime rather alarming, or otherwise rather extreme, or even both. The show does, at least, make one grateful to be able to freely express opinions on practically anything. But then so does watching Cabaret or Fiddler on the Roof. Thus, this production feels unique, and at the same time, it also feels like something you’ve seen somewhere before.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

The darkly comic new play has been created in collaboration with anonymous artists from Syria, Venezuela, Brazil, Hungary and Azerbaijan who have lived experience of making art under autocratic regimes.

Project Dictator follows two clowns (played by Rhum + Clay’s Co-Artistic Directors Matt Wells and Julian Spooner) performing a show amid political instability; initially enjoying apparent freedom of expression against the backdrop of liberal democracy, before the production is slowly engulfed by the creeping shadow or authoritarianism. Subverting the trope of the comedy double act, this twisted comedy highlights the ironies inherent in creating art without freedom, the delicate balance between artistic expression and complicity, and the consequences of long-established liberties being swept away under rising populism.

Syrian jazz composer Khaled Kurbeh, who performs live alongside the two clowns, has devised a cinematic electroacoustic score, which adds further depth to this powerful, thought-provoking commentary.

Rhum + Clay’s
Co-Director & Performer – Julian Spooner
Co-Director & Performer – Matt Wells
Co-Director – Hamish Macdougall
Composer & Musician – Khaled Kurbeh
Designer – Blythe Brett
Lighting Designer – Simeon Miller
Associate Director – Mine Cerci
Technical Stage Manager – Adam Jefferys
Sound Engineer – Ben Grant
Producer – Grace Dickson
29 March – 30 April 2022

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