'Early Days of a Better Nation' review or 'Politics just got personal.'
‘Early Days (of a Better Nation)’, Coney
Battersea Arts Centre, Friday 15th November 2013
The Government and military have fled. Outside, the vigilantes are swarming. Things are getting ugly and some old bloke has even been strung up and left to die. It's time for us to put aside petty politics and find a new way to rule. It's time for us to build a better nation.
Coney is on the verge of creating a brilliant and hugely useful show in 'Early Days (of a Better Nation)'. Friday night was only a scratch night and the piece still feels baggy in places. There were great gusts of energy and passion on Friday night but many moments, too, when the show and spectators felt a little lost. But ‘Early Days’ does something special: it transforms the political into the personal and makes engaged, engaging citizens of us all.
The physical side of the show needs some work. I'm so used to having my whole body engaged when I go to the BAC but this show only tapped into my head. ‘Early Days’ is going to be much more unsettling when it stimulates both body and mind and sets the two against each other.
The show starts with a theoretical sense of danger. The audience is split into four sections, with each group representing a region in Colonia; the Coast, Island, Plains or City. Each group is led to a separate area of the BAC. We listen to a tape recording which tells us that a power vacuum threatens to swallow Colonia whole. It is up to us to appease (or defeat) the vigilantes and find a new way to govern our nation.
We are told about this dangerous context – but we never get to experience it. The only glimpse we get of the anarchy raging outside is a few muffled threats on the radio. Otherwise, we feel rather comfortable inside our dimly lit bolthole, our entrenched political opinions unpricked by any immediate sense of danger. This show really needs to attack our senses, cloud our judgement and force us into making instinctive decisions. That’s when our safe ideals might begin to slide.
What was really interesting, though, is how little encouragement the spectators required to engage in the political process. It's amazing how brave and vocal the audience becomes in the dark. Trapped in a murky room, with only a few maps, checklists, pens and paper at our disposal, the audience begins to think big. Everyone has an opinion and not a single spectator pulls back from talking out. It is so rare to go to an interactive show in which everyone feels so comfortable. I think that comfort is there because Coney have handed most of the power – or seeming power – over to the audience. Each group is 'guided' by an actor journalist but we’re essentially left to our own devices. Give the people a little power and watch them run with it.
The individual groups are then led into the main hall for a final act, during which the four nations attempt to find a new way forward together. Again, some important revelations emerge about politics and the public. Instinctive leaders rise up within each group. These leaders are not necessarily the ones who care the most but are those who are the clearest and most confident. It didn't seem to matter so much what people were saying – but how they were saying it.
The connection people felt with their original groups was also striking. These regions – the coast, island, city and plains – were not assigned to us for any particular reason. Yet how loyal we quickly became! There were a few people who changed groups but most people firmly stuck with the original groups to which they were assigned – or 'born' into.
The show did lose its shape in the final act. In the harsh light of the hall, people became more dogmatic and the earlier, rich discussion began to slip through the fingers. It also felt, as we edged towards the conclusion, that people could sense the show was heading towards a cul-de-sac. It's hard to remain engaged with a show that feels like it's not going anywhere. The atmosphere waned and I started to drift away from the centre of things.
‘Early Days’ needs more catalysts: more actors, more action and more urgency. But this is still a brilliant piece, which scratches just below the surface of all that supposed apathy and reveals a passionate and compassionate public, looking for a voice.