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Performance Live: Why Paul Mason was Kicking Sand Everywhere at the Young Vic

Paul Mason in Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere at the Young Vic

Photo by David Sandison

I didn’t get to the Young Vic in March to see Paul Mason’s theatrical update of his book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, but read the reviews and so had to tune in to BBC Two last night for its screening as part of their series of “innovative” theatre broadcasts Performance Live. Now I do see Paul Mason as a political ally, but probably not a creative one given the mess that I consider his contribution to Performance Live was at the Young Vic. It’s ironic that he hung that misfire on Brecht’s car crash metaphor. As theatre and as political analysis it really was an RTA. Perhaps the problem lay in trying to take theatre beyond what it can be politically – agitprop or a stimulus for critical thinking and discourse. Even Brecht didn’t presume to offer up theatre as analytical historical essay. But that seems to be exactly what Mason tried to do with his collaboration with Young Vic artistic director David Lan, and what a pile up it was.

In attempting to re-align the premature evaluation over-enthusiastically and naively presented in his 2012 book bearing the same title, Mason sought to use the platform of a 1hour theatre piece and a craft in which he has no apparent expertise to correct his historical mistake. Ultimately all he achieved was to consolidate the impression that his political analysis is shallow and at once deeply flawed. I’m not sure if that’s a fair appraisal of Mason as a political commentator, but this vanity project hasn’t helped him or anyone for whom elevating mass consciousness is vital. Less crucially and contrary to the BBC and other media hype, it hasn’t done much for the evolution of theatre either.

Mason’s stage play indicated a puerile understanding of narrative that is limited to ordering events chronologically. A rooting in political theory and/or historical perspective, if not Marxist then something, might have provided the narrative scafold needed to hold his piece together even if it necessarily limited its scope. The attempts to make the connections that exist between the disparate events depicted using scant, fleeting socio-economic references simply failed to tie his jumbled mess together. Instead we saw Mason flitting around time and space scraping the surface of events, barely touching historical context – perhaps because he thought the French revolution provided all the historical context he needed. I really hope not, but that’s all we got.

Director David Lan made admirable efforts to lift this ill-considered venture into imaginative theatre even if the performances delivered caricatures (some complete with comedy accents) rather than individual characters. But the projections rocked – working in the way video projection is most effective in a symbiotic relationship with lighting, set and sound design. The contemporary device of placing the cast among the audience who in turn occasionally became the chorus of protestors was an apt reflection of the egalitarian principles of Mason’s protagonists and perhaps his core proposition. Although I’m probably making a big assumption about there being a core proposition somewhere in the wreckage of this offering.

What was most frustrating was the throw away reference to Derrida’s ideas on hauntology from Spectres of Marx early on in the play. The whole point being that the neoliberal consensus has all but robbed us of the means to mine the past to imagine a future. Surely an understanding of the ensuing ideological vacuum in which we’re operating today should have alerted Mason to the need for deeper engagement and greater clarity than he was able to offer through this work. The likes of the rave reviewers in the Guardian et al may be comfortable in this confused stagnation where virtue signalling replaces real movements towards change, but I’m sure Paul Mason the activist would claim larger ambitions. Sadly, with the stage update of Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, he only managed to kick sand everywhere and most of it got in our eyes.

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