Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Review: 'Danelaw' at the Old Red Lion, 1st October 2019

Reviewed by David James
Rating: 2 Stars

The far-right are currently the fastest-growing terrorist threat in the United Kingdom. Decades of anti-immigrant stories in tabloid newspapers, Conservative policies victimising asylum seekers and online echo chambers (among many other factors) have created a fertile ground for violence. The consequences of this are atrocities like the murder of Jo Cox, the June 2017 attack on a mosque in Finsbury Park and many, many failed terror plots (which don't tend to get a huge deal of media coverage).

Things feel close to breaking point in the UK at the moment - just yesterday I saw a man who'd doused himself in petrol outside Parliament and attempted to set himself on fire. This climate means it's a good time to revive Danelaw, Peter Hamilton's 2005 satire that picks apart the political libido of the far right.

We begin in prison, where Cliff (Dan MacLane) is serving a stretch for racially aggravated assault. He's visited by Warboys (Craig Crosbie), a mysterious upper-class man who hints at a big future for Cliff. Warboys' plan is to recreate the titular Danelaw: a white nationalist separatist territory in East Anglia with Chelmsford as its capital. Cliff, a former football hooligan suffering from mental illness, is clearly the prime candidate to revive Viking Britain.

Soon he's sprung from prison, has rechristened himself Olaf and is busy assembling a motley crew consisting of his former cellmates, family on the outside and a threateningly competent gang of dutch Neo-Nazis. With a stash of explosives and weaponry at their disposal, they draw up plans to strike at a mosque in an attempt to kickstart their race war.

Though Danelaw comes with warnings about violent content and racist imagery, it's so broadly written and performed that the play is basically a cartoon. With the exception of Warboys (and perhaps the Dutch Neo-Nazis), every character is monumentally stupid and gullible. On top of that, most of them don't have any particularly strong racist convictions and have essentially been peer-pressured into fascism.

It's an interesting (and I suspect accurate) perspective. People want to be part of a community and many members of terrorist groups are sucked in because that's what their friends are doing - and once you're in, you're in. The script touches on this ideological malleability many times, characters claiming that they see fascism as a role or phase, with many only involved because they just want to fit in.

Sadly, while Danelaw has a decent amount of insight, it's not a particularly good play. The cast has clearly been directed to go big with their performances - and while Dan MacLane, Craig Crosbie and Evelyn Craven manage it while remaining believable, many members of the cast don't. For example, Will Henry's Jason is just a collection of tics and overly mannered body language - and despite getting a decent chunk of the play to himself I had no idea what the character was supposed to be about.

Then there's the flabby second half. Without wanting to spoil the plot, the play comes a natural conclusion about 15 minutes after the interval. It then proceeds to spin its tyres through a series of lengthy, meandering epilogues that kill all sense of momentum. Even besides that, there's a lot that could (and should) be cut from the play - with many of its 11-strong cast of characters just not contributing much to the overall themes.

Danelaw never quite becomes boring, but it's frustrating that the skeleton of an excellent piece of drama is so clearly present yet is mired in dramatic dead-ends. That said, I appreciated its perspective and with nationalism on the rise (encouraged by a Conservative Party accelerating rightwards) audiences should be reminded that this trajectory always ends with blood on the streets.

Danelaw is at the Old Red Lion until 5 October. Tickets here.

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