Seventy years ago, the UK's last Communist MP went forth from Battersea Town Hall to greet his tumultuous electorate. Today that chamber is a theatre presenting a stage adaptation of Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto. It's a bizarre notion, but one in keeping with the philosophy of Volcano Theatre Company, who profess "to reject both the use of 'The Script' and the work of 'The Dramatist'." This doesn't always make it easy on "The Reviewer", although their seething gumbo of ideas ensures an eventful ride.
The words of the manifesto are mixed in with commentary from Arthur Koestler and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky (who committed suicide rather than be purged by Stalin for artistic deviationism) so that impassioned rallying cries are qualified by sometimes disillusioned hindsight. Movie soundtracks are used (unacknowledged) to witty effect for those who spot them: an outraged condemnation of the liberal artistic intelligentsia by a group of capitalist dinosaurs is backed by the theme to Jurassic Park, and the prophetic words "a spectre is haunting Europe" are declaimed above music from Terminator 2.
Volcano are an avowedly physical theatre company, and Nigel Charnock's staging illustrates how this kind of work has come further into its own in the last few years. Stuart Lucas's driving original music is a fitting backdrop to the onstage exertions, which embody the aesthetic of sweat that has arisen from contemporary club culture. The industrial climate of communist theory is symbolised not by clumsy mechanistic jerks, but by strenuous and sustained bodily commitment from the cast of six.
It all sounds terribly worthy, but Manifesto is far from being a 75-minute sermon. When tempted towards evangelism, the company puncture the moment's solemnity; for example, the basic tenets of communism are recited during a tumbling act, with mystified comments from bourgeois onlookers. The piece is aimed at the intellect rather than the emotions, and no final synthesis of the conflicting viewpoints is achieved. Nevertheless, it amply demonstrates how Volcano have earned a growing reputation for their intense and original approach, turning resistant source material into genuine theatrical creations.
Written for the London Evening Standard.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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