Brighton Fringe 2018
As the lights came up on the big stage there was a young woman standing at the front, body held erect with her fist raised high in a revolutionary salute. Dressed in a blue tunic with a red bandanna round her hair. Teeth bared – set, like her face, in an expression of grim determination and defiance. Head looking outwards, over the front rows towards the back of the auditorium – or the enemy approaching over the horizon.
Behind her, against the backdrop, a man dressed very like her was waving an immense red flag back and forth. And the backdrop itself? Black, filled with a huge white circle, itself pierced by a narrow red triangle. Of course! It’s Lissitzky’s 1919 poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’. The thing must have been a good ten metres across.
So it’s post-revolutionary Russia, the turbulent period when the Bolshevik government was under attack both from ‘Capitalist’ Western states, and from counter-revolutionary ‘White Russian’ armies in a civil war. A crowd of Soviet workers flooded on to the stage, a flurry of blue with splashes of red on head or waist, and we listened to Lenin making a speech – promising ‘Everything for The Workers’ and that the Red Army would achieve ‘Victory or Death’.
But it’s easier to offer things than to deliver them. Despite their sacrifices, people still suffer, and the promised land doesn’t seem very much closer. So they become impatient, and restless, and sometimes they want a new leader, or to turn back the clock entirely. That’s why the Party has to be so unwavering. All the propaganda – the speeches, the posters, the flags – is to keep the Revolution’s programme on track. As is the elimination of all opposition – by any means necessary. We saw a lot of people being shot …
Those numerous tableaux of revolutionary Comrades that we saw, looking like Socialist Realist posters; those crowds storming The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, turned out to be just nine actors in total, though at the time it felt like there were dozens filling the stage. A tribute to the skill of Windmill Young Actors. I was hoping for great things after their awesome production of ‘Agamemnon’ last year, and once again they’ve delivered.
‘Agamemnon’ was located in the Bronze Age, about three and a half thousand years ago. The Russian Revolution took place just one hundred years ago, but the memories of it have faded, and after the collapse of Communism in the Nineties it seems like ancient history itself. In this production the company try to show us what it was like to live through a revolution, what were the conditions that brought it about, and (most importantly) whether it could happen again – today, here.
So the Bolshevik comrades shouted their slogans about the country being at the mercy of international finance, and the corruption of politicians and industrialists, and inequality, and social deprivation, and the rich piling up billions while ordinary citizens starved … and it all seemed horribly familiar. This is what we read about every day in the newspapers.
The action moved seamlessly back and forth between historical events and our current reality – of homeless people sleeping in doorways while others make millions out of buy-to-let property. Of a Government concerned only with money, that doesn’t care about the welfare of its poorest citizens, that allows disasters like Grenfell Tower to occur. Of Grenfell – one actor quoted a resident. “This is not a tragedy. This is a crime”. The show gave us Abi as the central figure here. She experiences the insecurity of not having accommodation where she could feel safe and, as a disabled person, having to navigate the bureaucratic maze of government agencies in order to claim any sort of benefit. And there are thousands just like Abi.
Something must be done – but it has to start with us ourselves. ‘About a Revolution’ is a devised piece, workshopped into being by the actors themselves, with historical input from writer Joe Gill. As part of this process, each of the cast delivered a short solo testament, at various points throughout the show. They talked about some event, some turning point in their lives, that had changed them and made them feel more confident and in control. Little things, big things; it didn’t matter – the important thing was that they’d experienced their own personal revolution. It was very moving.
But the big picture? Here the sad truth is that we’ve become slaves to our technology. We can see the conflicts and inequalities on TV and share them on social media. But we remain atomised – each individual Facebook member reduced to ‘Like’-ing somebody else’s comment. Those swathes of Soviet comrades were transformed into a busy crowd passing back and forth across the stage, each person’s gaze fixed on their mobile phone screen – hand open, facing inward at arm’s length. Doesn’t bode well for change – the clenched fist turning into the open palm …
Millie Mae Morris played (amongst others) Fanny Kaplan, a revolutionary socialist who’d tried to kill Lenin. She’s also written a poem, part of which goes –
I don’t feel, I click / I don’t see, I flick / I don’t talk, I share / I don’t seem it but I do care / But I’m blocked and / I scroll / and scroll / and scroll
So what should we do? The production wasn’t very clear about that. That’s partly because it’s an honest response (If I knew the answer I’d be out there doing it, and you’d probably be there beside me) and also because, as they showed us, most of the great revolutionary leaders were killed. By their rightwing enemies, by ambitious rivals, or by their disillusioned supporters.
Pretty downbeat thought. But this is theatre, and these young people are idealistic and keen, so the show finished with a great celebration of the revolutionary spirit. They filled the stage with a sea of blue and red uniforms, and the whole area was drenched in red light as David Goodman’s rhythmically driving music swelled to full volume. The effect was overwhelming. The last time I remember a performance of equal power – also about Revolution, as it happens – was years ago at ‘Les Miserables’ in London’s West End. To put on something this slick within the time and equipment constraints of a Fringe venue takes real commitment and a great deal of talent. Windmill Young Actors have created something truly great. It deserves to be highly, highly recommended.
At the very end, a single figure stepped forward, clad all in red. “Change is coming. I can feel it. Can you?” All we could do was nod hopefully – and applaud loud and long.