Protest Song

Venue: National Theatre Shed

Writer: Tim Price

Director: Polly Findlay

Cast: Rhys Ifans

Protest Song
Rhys Ifans

Writer Tim Price and actor Rhys Ifans provide Protest Song with a strong Welsh accent as it addresses the continuing scandal of large-scale homelessness in London and the worldwide crisis in capitalism. The considerable achievement of the play – taking the form of a 70-minute monologue – is that it draws compelling connections between the plight of Danny, a Welsh drifter who sleeps rough in office building doorways in the area round St Paul’s Cathedral, and the failures of the global political and banking system in recent years. Rarely has a play made the personal and political seem so interconnected with such emotional force.

Danny shuffles into the intimate black box of the National Shed auditorium, cursing under his breath, carrying his life’s possessions in a sack slung over his shoulder. As several items are introduced to the audience his backstory is sketchily delineated; marital and family breakdown, mental illness, alcoholism, unemployment. We also learn about Danny’s strategies for daily survival. This introductory material has the ring of truth, though it follows a somewhat familiar pattern. Ifans injects some surprises, however, with some ad-libbed interactions with his audience, which alternates from the outrageously funny to the aggressively challenging. As Danny collects phone numbers from the audience, to enter into his pay-as-you-go mobile, one reluctant tourist objects that his is an Australian number, Ifans instantly replies, ‘Hey, that’s okay mate – I’ll call you anywhere you like’. Such humorous moments pose the potential danger of Danny being presented as a simple figure of fun, but Ifans is careful to use these improvisations to amplify the scabrous wit of Price’s text. Later, Ifans offers his outstretched hand to others in the audience and asks them, ‘Would you touch a rough sleeper?’ No one takes him up on the offer this night.

Price develops his protagonist as a multi-layered characterisation with the arrival of the Occupy Movement on Danny’s patch. The prospect of free mugs of tea and hot meals attracts the casual opportunist in Danny, who, initially, becomes an emblematic mascot for the protesters. These protesters, in turn, act as educators for Danny, whose political consciousness dawns with the realisation that his problems derive from the very iniquities of market capitalism that the Occupy Movement is campaigning against. Soon Danny is working in the camp kitchen with, ‘Dev, Poncho, Ally and Mikey with a Dog on a String’ cooking up concoctions of ‘okra, mung beans and pak choi’. His rising consciousness peaks at a crisis meeting in the temporary camp, at which he urges his fellow protesters to remain outside St Paul’s in opposition to those who feel that their point has been made and who now want to return to their homes. Danny revels in the memory of his surprise at hearing everyone present clicking their fingers to indicate their agreement with his assertion that, ‘Politics couldn’t exist without the camp, and the camp couldn’t exist without politics’.

Both Price and Ifans detail the character’s personal growth and political commitment with intelligence and insight. Ifans is something of a revelation in the role; whereas his cinematic repertoire of comic rogues and campy villains have proved hugely popular and enjoyable over the years, due to his undeniable charisma and charm, he has shown little in his career to indicate, at least to this reviewer, that he was capable of such an intelligent, impassioned and emotionally searing performance. Ifans presents us with glimpses of the many facets of Danny; the filthy grotesque of the streets, the heartbroken Dad estranged from his beloved son, the angry political activist, the confused mental illness sufferer, the humourist and philosopher – and, ultimately, the desperately lonely and needy man. After this performance, it is possible to imagine Ifans playing a range of roles – including classical dramas – with distinction.

Credit must also go to director Polly Findlay, who builds the tension with admirable restraint. Both the lighting design of Lee Curran and sound design of Carolyn Downing succeed in establishing moody atmospherics with little fuss. The one example of scenic effect that Findlay and her team allow themselves comes at the end of the play, when Danny falls into a downward spiral of violent self-destruction and takes a sledge-hammer to Merle Hensel’s minimalist set. This moment is a real coup-de-theatre, when actor, text and production combine to reinforce the deep sadness that lies at the heart of this play.

Danny recalls one night being asked by protestors to eject several of his homeless friends from the camp kitchen. Caught between his new sense of mission and old loyalties, he begins to suspect that the occupiers’ aims of non-hierarchical social order and transparent direct democracy might be an empty promise. In his futile rage he lashes out at one protestor and breaks his nose, which leads to Danny’s expulsion from the camp and the collapse of his new political identity. In the climactic scene, surrounded by the devastation he has wrought, Danny confides, ‘Occupy screwed my life up because it gave me hope’.

The intriguing idea raised in Price’s play is that the Occupy Movement, though heroes to some, ultimately proved ineffectual in their challenge to globalised capitalism because the protestors lacked the courage of their convictions and the stamina to remain true to their ideals. It is a welcome piece of criticism coming from a playwright who clearly sympathises with the radical left, but who is also indignant at its failures of nerve. Occasionally, as was the case with The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, Price insists on telling you what to think rather than simply making you think; and while describing Boris Johnson as a ‘Shit-eating Nazi paedophile’ might have been cathartic to write, it seems a rather cheap gag given the complexity of the wider point the play is making. Perhaps that is to underestimate the value, even necessity, of political polemic, and the wild laughter from the night’s audience suggests that Price has tapped into a widespread sense of frustration among many on the left at how easily the bankers and politicians have escaped punishment for their venality and criminality.

Tim Price’s ambition to tackle the great contemporary controversies is to be admired, that he does so while never losing his focus on the role of the individual in the struggle for social justice and freedom is all the more impressive and timely. At the end of the performance of Protest Song the audience gave a standing ovation, as much for the actor as the play one suspects. This reviewer was left to reflect that the power of theatre to frame a political discourse that is urgent, insightful and humane remains undimmed.