Saturday, June 30, 2012

'100% London' at the Hackney Empire, 29th June 2012

'100% London' is a theatre of demographics and statistics, a theatre of the multitude.  If it does tell a story, then it is one of the city's passions, pain and pride.  This production, by company Rimini Protokoll, features 100 participants chosen in a kind of daisy-chain.  One person asks another, and they ask a friend and so on.  Eventually we end up with a cross-section of the populace, a tumultuous mix of ages, races, religions, genders, sexualities, nationalities and politics.

This blog is called 'London City Nights', but I haven't really had an opportunity before this to talk much about the city as a whole.  I love this city, I love everything about it - even the stuff I hate, if that makes any sense.  If I could choose to live anywhere in the world, I'd live in London.  Someone in this production comments: "London isn't like the rest of England, it's different".  To someone who hasn't been sucked into the whirlpool this sounds like a cliche Londoncentric attitude, a prime example of the viewpoint that life ends at the M25.  But it's true.  London really isn't like the rest of the country: it's more dynamic, more open-minded, more flexible and, somewhat ironically given the cliches, more welcoming. This year, for better or worse, London is in the spotlight. The advertising seems to focus on spectacle - all swooping helicopter shots over the thrusting phallic landmarks and giant bells clanging over it.  Ordinary Londoners are notable by their absence.  So this show seeks to redress the balance - taking the collective psychic subconsciousness of the London public and throwing it onto stage.

Harnessing this sea of opinion and history is necessarily a messy affair.  The show is rough around the edges and there is a distinct lack of glamour.  We open with a lone man on stage who tells us the recent history of the Hackney Empire, and how he used to play bingo here.  He looks a little nervous and talks haltingly.  The stage looks enormous around him, and I feel a pang of sympathy for him, while at the same time hoping that the rest of this performance isn't going to be this awkward.  He tells us of his life, about his emigration from Jamaica in the 60s and his subsequent life in Hackney.  As we get an understanding of the man he introduces another person, who tells us something about themselves, they introduce another friend to us and so on.  We meet 100 people in this manner.  They're not rushed and seem to get as long as they want to speak to us.  Some of them briefly announce their name and move on in moments, some of them tell us fairly long anecdotes about their past.  You might think that 100 people seems like a lot - how can we be expected to meet so many people without it all becoming a bit samey?  But there is always some spark that sets them apart from the crowd, something that makes them stick in our minds.  

After we've been introduced to everyone we move onto the meat of the matter - where they're quizzed about their viewpoints, asked questions as varied as "Do you think the NHS should be privatised?", "Are women and men treated equally?" and "Do you think Mandarin Chinese should be taught in schools?"  The crowd divide themselves according to their answers, forming and reforming into two groups showing their opinion.  There is a camera high above the stage, and the view from above is projected onto a circular screen above the stage.  It neatly transforms the movement of the people on stage into something diagrammatical, allowing us to see the people impersonally, as points of data on a chart.

The split viewpoint is used in a number of interesting ways in the performance, it's frequently visually arresting - particularly when the crowd is asked some personal questions they may prefer to be anonymous for.  The lights go down and they're asked to raise their mobile phone screens up to the camera if they're answering 'yes'.  The result picture looks like a view from a telescope, tiny balls of light shimmering in the darkness.  It's quite beautiful, and if the theme of this show is to highlight the beauty of a person in the crowd then symbolically showing them as stars shining in the night sky is a wonderful way of doing it.

Another wonderful sequence is when they ask the crowd to mime what they're doing at different times of the day.  It's a hilarious way of showing the 24 hour nature of London, a city that never sleeps.  As people drop off to sleep some are still partying away, and as they rise for work others fall asleep.  Once again it divides the crowd  yet still allows us to view them as one organism working in harmony.

As we see more of their opinions we begin to become surprised by some of the participants.  You can't help but form your own picture of their lives and how they think, it's easy to try and fit them into your own stereotypes and then it's strangely uplifting when they defy them.  Who would have thought that this sweet looking old lady spent 4 years in prison for trying to smuggle a bus full of marijuana through Europe?  That the fashionable and slightly self conscious teenage girl with hair over one eye has apparently experienced some kind of military service?  It's an excellent demonstration of the maxim that people are not pre-packaged bundles of opinions and ideas; just because someone believes in x does not mean they will automatically believe in y.

Later in the show more personal questions are asked, and we seem to peer into these people's lives in a more intimate manner.  People come forward who've survived cancer and stand together.  A group who've suffered from depression.  People who've thought about killing themselves.  Never does one person stand alone during any of these, and it's somehow comforting that no matter what you've been through there is someone who can empathise with you.  There is one sequence where they are asked to come forward "If they think they will be dead within 10 years?".  A small group of people stand at the front of the stage, almost aggressively confronting us with the nature of their confessed fragile mortality.  The next question is asked "Who thinks they'll be dead within 30 years?", the crowd grows larger, the question is asked again this time for 70 years, and finally 120.  Everyone stands on stage, even the young children.  It's a weird moment seeing these small children acknowledging their own mortality.

There are some flaws with this performance - they change things up frequently to keep things fresh, but it is hard to get away from the fact that this is essentially a series of questions asked for two hours and occasionally during some of the less illuminating questions it becomes a bit dull.  But usually within a few minutes some odd statistical quirk or funny anecdote will set you thinking again (Wow, a lot of people seem to support Britain becoming a republic.  Hm.).  There's also a bit towards the end of the show where they ask the audience if they can take a minute without nothing happening on stage.  Maybe it's because the night before I watched a similar scene and can already fully appreciate how long a minute can feel. Either way, while admittedly an interesting exercise in time perception, it is also pretty boring.  Fortunately this is a blip, the show generally holds your attention throughout and you're constantly being shown interesting 'data' to evaluate.

At times, nearly everyone finds the sheer size of London intimidating.  They sense themselves being chipped away by the multitude, losing their individuality and becoming just another face in a huge crowd.  When travelling in rush hour on the tube its hard not to feel like a product, something being shuttled around an uncaring system, a rat running madly around a maze with no escape or reward at the end.  This show is an experience that cures that malaise.  It forces you to come to realisation that everyone around you has their own story, personality, or something to set them apart from the crowd, and that you do too.  It'd be very easy for a production like this to take a fiercely anti-individualistic position, and treat this crowd purely as a symbolic representation of the 7.5 million inhabitants of London.  They're not, they're defined strongly as individuals in their own right, and by extension so is the audience.

This year the fear of your personality being dissolved into the masses has another level:  London itself is under attack.  London's individuality is under siege, people having their homes transformed into missile platforms,  bulldozers clearing space for  brushed aluminium Olympic venues and hamburger stands.  If there ever was a time for a production to unambiguously say that the power of London is in its citizens it is now.

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