Directors: Hamish MacDougall, Julian Spooner, Matt Wells
Clown is a widely known and loved art – a pure form of storytelling – or so you thought. Project Dictator takes the expectation of clowning and thrusts the audience into a whirlwind of unexpected chaos. This new piece from returning Fringe company Rhum + Clay, commissioned by New Diorama Theatre, is an unpredictable yet fitting addition to Pleasance’s programming this year.
The audience is closely packed and greeted by live electronic music (composed and performed by Khaled Kurbeh). Onstage is a red curtain and a small prompter screen that hangs just over Kurbeh’s instrument corner. The preshow announcement warns this will last four hours and 37 minutes, with no intervals, and the lights go down.
At first, the wide smile of dusty, trapped-in-the-eighties Martin Wallace (Matt Wells) invites us to watch his painstakingly pedagogical political theatrical opus, but it’s quickly sideswiped by his sidekick, Jeremy (Julian Spooner). He has his own ideas about politics and what makes theatre good. The audience erupts into shouts and laughter as Jeremy makes changes to the play and becomes frenzied, exhilarated by his increasing power.
This is a funny, physically excellent piece of work, but the first part begs the question, is this actually a clown show?
Rhum + Clay is a physical theatre company, established in 2010, and with previous Fringe successes like The War of the Worlds and Mistero Buffero. Their devising process starts with conversation; this time, with artists who live under oppressive governments. Having these conversations is a fantastic start towards tackling these issues and increasing global understanding, and they’ve created a skilful piece of work.
However, recently there have been efforts to house Ukrainian refugee artists, and find them space and funding to continue their work. Surely a piece like this deserves to be made or performed by someone with lived experience, rather than merely as an interviewee. It’s understandable that some people in totalitarian circumstances can’t speak out or leave their home without facing incredible danger – but it’s clear that there is also a call for producing artists and funders to bring those artists who are speaking out into the spotlight.
In the second half, Spooner and Wells are thrown onstage, bags over their heads. A single voice from an onstage speaker forces them to become the Pagliacci duo one might have expected to see at the top. Their performance, albeit adept and clearly professional, will make you regret even thinking to ask if this is really a clown show.
Employing beautiful counter-storytelling, they experience the effects of this authoritarian leadership. The two clowns and Kurdeh handle these new circumstances in their own ways, but all starts to deteriorate. There is no hope for them. Is there hope for us?
Project Dictator is a masterful piece of theatre that takes its audience on a wild journey. With skillful physical performance and innovative storytelling, Rhum + Clay has created another Fringe knockout. Take a trip down to Pleasance and see for yourself.
Runs at Pleasance Courtyard – Pleasance Two until 27 August 2022