Revolution Square: Work in Progress

“I hope that they start to see connections”. These were the words of Revolution Square‘s writer and director Jonathan Holmes, spoken during our conversation last week when I asked him what he hoped audiences would take away from the piece, and they serve as a fitting place to begin reflecting on this work in progress. Because if this 45 minute scratch performance in a small attic space of the Bush Theatre achieves one thing in exemplary fashion, it is a sense of interconnectedness. To draw on another phrase from Holmes, “there’s a sense of joining the dots”.

The immediate context is the political situation in Russia and the recent protests against the country’s allegedly rigged parliamentary elections, but there is much more going on even within the play’s current short form. At the moment it feels economically crammed full of ideas, with barely a word wasted, leaving early audiences to do the unpacking – a process that is enthusiastically embarked upon in the overrunning post-show discussion. There is, as Holmes confessed to me when we spoke briefly before the performance, simply too much to fit in at this stage. It may be overflowing at the moment, but that’s part of what this process is all about.

In its current incarnation, Revolution Square is essentially a conversation between three women caught up, willingly or unwillingly, in last December’s protests: a British priest, a Russian socialite and a dissatisfied young girl from the country (played by Helen Masters, Dolya Gavanski and Sian Rees). Each has a different perspective on the riots and on Russian politics; a division of opinion that is intensified by the introduction of a Western outsider, a move that immediately joins the dots by connecting the situation in Russia to what is going on elsewhere. Moscow does not exist in a vacuum, and Holmes even posits the unsettling thought that what we are looking at in Russia now is a preview of Europe in a decade’s time. It is not a particularly sunny forecast.

Returning to this idea of connections, one of the characters remarks to the British woman that perhaps she should look in her own ‘back yard’ before taking it upon herself to comment on the situation in Russia, a pertinent point considering our own current state of crisis. If not quite as pronounced as in Russia and seemingly a million miles away from the Arab Spring demonstrations that this piece also makes reference to – joining those dots again – we certainly have our own problems. This all feeds into a wider, unsettling sense of mass discontent that has been compounded by last summer’s riots and the Occupy movement and that seems to be increasingly reflected in our theatre. This discontent on a wider scale, its roots and its possible destination is an area that I personally would like to see explored further.

The other question that is raised of whether we have the right to pass judgement on Russian politics is an interesting and troubling one, especially as that is exactly what we are participating in when we come to see this piece of theatre. As the Brit in the play points out, surely this is better than ignoring what is going on, but we must also be aware that as a culture we have a patronising tendency to assume superiority over others and preach democracy, a tendency that Revolution Square is implicitly challenging while simultaneously participating in that culture. This piece does not shy away, however, from openly admitting that the protest movement in Russia does not have an alternative ideology that it is proposing; as one other audience member puts it in the post-show discussion, they know what they are moving away from but not what they are moving towards.

In terms of structure, the piece is primarily character driven, as Holmes intended it to be. Much of the dialogue is necessarily political and intellectual debate, but this is achieved without completely sacrificing theatricality and is an approach that I hope and expect will continue into the finished piece. Debates can be argued in any manner of ways, but what makes theatre so effective as a medium is its ability to engage us on a more immediate level than, for example, journalism. To keep audiences interested in these debates, they must also be kept interested in the characters, which Holmes seems to recognise. Towards the end, however, the piece breaks out of its naturalistic bonds and takes a decidedly Brechtian turn, a detour that currently causes a distracting rupture but that could be more smoothly integrated into the piece. It seems important when dealing with this subject matter to give the audience the odd jolt and keep them engaged on an intellectual level as well as an emotional one, but this still requires further development.

There is much more in this piece that could be discussed: comparisons between the political structure in Russia and the Medici dynasty in Florence, further thoughts on ideology and its necessity or otherwise for a protest movement, the role played by religion, the recurring motif of falling, the link between Russia and the current state of Greece, which was ironically the birth place of democracy, the question of what democracy itself really means – I could go on and on. There is also, both because it is a play with exclusively female characters and because of some of the conversations within it, a sub-strand of gender politics that is particularly fascinating. For a piece of theatre that is, on the surface, about a very specific situation, Revolution Square opens up pathways to many other debates.

Unsurprisingly and perhaps inevitably, this has a slightly messy, incomplete feel; an isolated jigsaw piece with jagged edges. As we engage in discussion following the performance, however, other pieces already begin to present themselves, even if they do not quite fit together at this stage. It’s a fascinating process to be a part of, like watching a roughly-hewn sculpture being delicately teased into shape. What Holmes and his performers have produced to date is a sort of suggestion or provocation, a conversation starter that brings thought upon thought tumbling out.

I’m intrigued to see how these discussions are eventually weaved together into a finished piece, but I am compelled to end on a note of uncertainty. Because, one might ask, is a piece of theatre ever really finished? And I don’t refer to the little daily tweaks and changes that are an inherent part of live performance. When we are speaking about politically engaged, provocative, thoughtful, responsive theatre – theatre that begs a conversation – does that theatre then extend into the discussions which it acts as a catalyst for? Where does theatre end and discussion begin, or are the two inextricably tangled?

Revolution Square runs at the Bush Theatre until 17 March.

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