The Occupy movement in London had its camp in the square outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, a location that was already occupied by “rough sleepers”, the current British term for what in North Armerica are called “street people”. A new one-person play, Protest Song, by Tim Price, imagines the interaction between one rough sleeper, Danny, and the young idealists who are inventing a new mode of human interaction on the fly.
The play was produced by the National Theatre in The Shed, a large red cube squatting in the forecourt of the National Theatre complex. It is a temporary structure replacing the wonderful, quirky little Cottesloe, which is currently being reconfigured into something to be called The Dorfman Theatre. The Shed is a marvel of prefabrication, steel platforms and walkways surrounding a central playing area, with chain-link fencing held together by plastic tie-line. There’s an anything-goes feel to it that seems appropriate to the play.
Danny, played with vigour by Rhys Ifans, starts off pan-handling the audience. He’s also collecting phone numbers to store on a mobile phone, to prove to a well-meaning social worker that he is rehabilitating himself. Once that is over with, he starts the story of the Occupy camp, how his initial resentment and disdain is gradually overcome, how he find his voice speaking over the “human microphone”, how he learns that “the politics” matters to him too. In time, however, his street-schooled behaviour clashes with the middle-class values of his new friends, and he is expelled. At the end, he curses the Occupy movement for ruining his life “because you gave me hope”.
This was a powerful evening at the theatre, and it is a fine thing that The National would tackle the subject of the Occupy movement, and treat it sympathetically. Still though . . .
The issues, and the commitment of the participants in the Occupation, are distanced by the playwright’s choice of Danny as the observer. The protest is an exotic event, involving strange lovable people ,that rises up around him and disappears, leaving the world as it was. Danny rails against the unfairness of having his equilibrium disturbed by an illusion. We are left with an impression of naive middle-class idealistic youngsters having a bit of fun before the real world knocks some sense into them. What was happening outside St. Paul’s was something more difficult, more dangerous and more vital that Danny understands, or the play delivers. I missed that.