Thursday, 26 April 2012

Demos - Playing David Cameron


I'm standing at a lectern on the stage of the Traverse Theatre in 
Edinburgh, declaiming in what I hear as an increasingly pompous voice 
the sort of right wing platitudes I usually abhor. With the entire 
audience braying so I have to speak over them, the man opposite is 
firing back retorts of equally schoolboyish one-upmanship. Sporting a 
suit I'd like to think gave me the air of a European arts mandarin but 
is probably more Jeremy Kyle, I find myself becoming the ultimate Tory 
boy. My God, I wonder, hearing my decidedly non-Etonian voice rise and 
fall, how did I get here?

I'm appearing in Demos, a new verbatim play by Tim Price and John 
Bywater, which takes as-it-happened accounts from two very different 
manifestations of democracy and turns them into mass participatory 
spectacle. The first, Sort Your S*** Out People, is taken from the 
minutes of the daily General Assembly of the Occupy Movement while 
camped outside St Paul's Cathedral in December 2011. The second, in 
which I'm somewhat bizarrely playing UK Prime Minister David Cameron, 
is taken from Hansard's record of Prime Minister's Question Time the 
day after the Occupy meeting.

Demos is the climax of Write Here, a week long festival of play 
readings, talks and workshops by writers old and new. The idea of Demos 
by Price, whose play, For Once, recently opened at the Traverse, is to 
explore what democracy means to different groups of people. The 
audience have been asked to bring along woolly hats and true blue ties 
in order to look the part, and are given copies of the script so they 
can play assorted Occupiers in the first play, and MPs in the second.

Part of the exploration of democracy is to mix up the casting. Which is 
how a theatre critic, usually on the other side of the fourth wall, has 
ended up being cast alongside professional actors James Mackenzie, who 
plays Labour leader Ed Miliband, and Kirstin Murray, who plays the 
Speaker of the House in the second play and lead Occupier Saskia in the 
first. I studied drama and was a spear carrier in the Scottish Theatre 
Company's famed production of Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaites, so it's 
no big deal, I reckon, and all those people who reckon theatre critics 
are just failed actors will now have to eat their words.

On the day of the performance itself, however, it's a bit more 
nerve-wracking than that. This hits home when I'm sitting in the 
Traverse bar having just met Hamish Pirie, the theatre's new associate 
director who's overseeing Demos. I'm feeling both guilty that I'm not 
chained to my computer banging out copy for the Herald as I usually 
would be on a Tuesday afternoon. Then I’m called for rehearsals, and I 
follow what appears to be the entire Traverse staff into the theatre. I 
wasn't expecting this. I thought it would just be me, Hamish, James and 
Kirstin, but these are people who I normally just request press tickets 
from. What are they doing here? They can't see me make a fool of myself.

As it is, the Traverse staff are standing in for the audience, and read 
in the lines of the Occupiers and MPs. We go through the second play, 
and, after initial hesitance, I begin to relish Cameron's lines, which 
in some ways are as subtle as Pinter or Mamet, turning on an emotional 
pin mid-sentence. One minute Cameron is giving sincere pre-Christmas 
sympathies to the families of fallen soldiers in Afghanistan, the next 
he and Miliband are tearing yah-boo chunks out of each other in 
increasingly pathetic displays of playground antics.

On the night itself, suited and booted and with a hundred audience 
members playing MPs, the adrenalin kicks in even more, and I hear 
myself sounding even more pompous than I did in the read-through.  And, 
oh, the power! When I raise my voice, the unscripted booing stops. I 
could make a panto villain yet, I think, as I revel in every piece of 
Tory clap-trap I'm spouting. As a lifelong wet liberal lefty with 
occasional flashes  of revolutionary zeal, this is rather worrying.

But Demos has clearly tapped into something, and it isn't alone in its 
exploration of big ideas. This week, the Traverse hosts the Arches 
Platform 18 double bill of Thatcher's Children and BEATS, while the 
first of Oran Mor's Arab Spring season of plays, Could you Please Look 
At The Camera, has also just transferred here. A few weeks ago in 
Glasgow there was a four hour unedited reading of transcripts from the 
Guantanamo inquiry presented by Arika at the CCA. Arika also presented 
a new Brechtian learning play. On May Day, the National Theatre of 
Scotland's Five Minute Theatre season is based on the theme of protest. 
Suddenly politics is everywhere in the theatre.

There's clearly something happening here that's not just about power, 
but about people power. By playing David Cameron, I've just had a taste 
of just how appealing and addictive that power can be.  “I'd vote for 
you,” someone tells me in the bar afterwards. I wouldn't.

The Herald, April 26th 2012

ends

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