A fascinating piece of participatory theatre with big ideas, but unevenly delivered.
The end of the world is nigh. Huddled in a situation room, The President and General (Split Britches’ Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw respectively) call on the twelve oldest members of the audience to become a “council of elders” and discuss their anxieties and worries about society, as well as looking at potential solutions. Behind them on the wall lie huge projections of the world map, which gradually show all the Nuclear detonations and tests in the world between 1945-1998. Inspired by the seminal satire Dr Strangelove, the show mixes archive footage, satirical skits and elements of a round-table discussion to explore our very own Unexploded Ordnances which here is a metaphor for our unexplored desires.
On the surface this is a fascinating concept – with most pieces of theatre the audience are just passive observers, merely the receivers of information. Here the communication is a two way process with the selected elders able to influence and shape the topics of conversation. These topics are of course location and time specific, and it would be fascinating to see how the topics differ when the performance is taken to different venues around the world. Here the topics were a mix of the domestic and the international – Trump, Brexit, the trustworthy-ness of politicians mingled in with concerns about aging and how to raise your children. It is a credit to Weaver that she is able to chair these discussions in a structured and inclusive way, yet due to the structure of the show and its timing limitations it often feels like a discussion is just beginning to peel back another layer of debate when the show moves on.
Interspersed with these participatory elements are scenes between Shaw and Weaver’s characters and multi-media shorts. A montage imagines phone conversations between world leaders of different eras – imagine Obama vs Thatcher, Reagan vs Hitler or Castro vs Cameron . This conjures up ideas of the leaders we have and the power they have to change the world through conversation with each other – for better or for worse. In another skit, The General is rung at work by his partner, revealing a softer side to his rough and bombastic exterior. These scenes feel heavily rehearsed and as a result a little clunky. It is evident that the performers want to make it clear that they are doing just that – performing; they frequently break character and often read their lines off scripts in front of them. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this as a performance choice, the consequence is that it makes these sections feel wooden and robotic.
One of the dangers of participatory theatre is it hugely depends on the contributions of the audience on any given night. Perhaps to mitigate this risk, Shaw and Weaver have created a structure in which any interactions with the “council” is highly focused around a set of questions. While this lowers the risk of the show being derailed and allows them to move the show on when needed, it also feels like it stifles the debate itself. The ending of the shows is to be commended – in a show focused on nuclear annihilation and all the problems in the world it would be too easy to end the show on a pessimistic note. Instead, the council are encouraged to read out a selection of audience curated “Unexploded Ordnances” – their own unexplored desires. As the clock runs down we are flooded with suggestions of hope and change, from the little (learn to dance) to the huge (end the oppressive capitalist regime). As a result we feel encouraged to seek change, whether that be personal, societal or global – an uplifting end to an uneven show.
Unexploded Ordnances is running at the Wales Millennium Centre until 30th March. For information and tickets, click here .
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