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.

Revolution Square: Thoughts on a Process

“Russia is a very unexplored political situation”. Until I hear these words from Jericho House‘s artistic director Jonathan Holmes, it is not an omission that I’ve particularly noticed, but the moment the statement is spoken I realise that it’s true. There remains an enduring fascination with Cold War era politics and the Soviet Union, but post-1990s Russian politics has taken a back seat in our concerns. This is something that Jericho House’s new project, Revolution Square, hopes to begin to change.

Although he has nurtured an interest in Russian politics and culture for several years, Holmes did not find a way into discussions about the situation – at least not discussions on the stage – until last December’s mass protests on the streets of Moscow against alleged fraud in the country’s parliamentary elections. “Suddenly, because of what else was happening in the world, I thought, ‘we need to do a show’,” Holmes tells me. “Then we knew we had two months to put something together because of the elections in March – in theatrical terms, that’s no time at all.”

The result, thanks to a collaboration with the Bush Theatre, has been a hectic week-long rehearsal process, to be followed by a week of scratch performances at the theatre. As we sit in the cosy cafe of the Bush’s new residence on the final day of rehearsals, Holmes explains that there was no other choice than to pull something together in this hasty fashion; even the script was not finished until a matter of days ago. “We couldn’t really put it together until we knew what the situation around the election was – not necessarily the result, because we could predict that Putin would get in, but it was just knowing what else was going to happen and leaving room to factor that in. It really has all come together over a period of ten days.”

During rehearsals over the past week, Holmes has worked closely and collaboratively with the three actors appearing in the piece, two of whom know Russia very well, a knowledge that has fed into the piece that will now be performed. Rather than existing as a fully-formed script before rehearsals began, Revolution Square has taken shape over the course of rehearsals, moulded into form by various layers of meaning, character and narrative from Holmes and his team. It seems to me an organic, flexible way of working.

“What’s interesting is that notions of character and narrative come very much more to the forefront,” Holmes reflects on the process. He was keen that, rather than the performers “acting as mouthpieces for different perspectives”, the play should be character driven, but this has proved to be a challenge with so little time at their disposal to discover these characters. It has entailed, however, a re-learning of the dramatic craft for all involved. “You start to evaluate these strategies for writing and you learn what’s useful and what’s not, what’s there for traditional reasons and what’s genuinely helpful,” says Holmes. “You’re reinventing the wheel, but in a very healthy way.”

This sort of quick-fire response and breathless rehearsal process raises questions about the way in which theatre responds to current events. Urgent topicality is a trend that has been on the rise in British theatre, from the Tricycle’s verbatim plays to Theatre503’s response to the hacking scandal. “It’s become quite a feature of British theatrical life,” Holmes agrees, “and that in itself raises challenges about what form that takes. Is it possible to create a play that’s quite nuanced and subtle and has all the things you want from a good play, but is also responding quickly? That’s something that I think British theatre is struggling with at the minute, and it’s nice to be part of that debate.”

What stands out about Jericho House’s response is that it is a debate, a true conversation. This is not a closed, blinkered process with a clear end goal or one specific political statement that it is setting out to make. Over the next few days, Holmes and his team are inviting audiences to be as vocal as they like, hosting post-show discussions, handing out feedback forms like candy and welcoming emails with suggestions. Holmes hopes that they will go away with lots of material to eventually make into a longer, finished show that has been informed by multiple perspectives.

“What’s important for all plays, but particularly for plays that are striving to be topical, is that you get a very clear set of responses – as many as possible from as many audiences as possible – so that you can factor those in,” says Holmes. “If you’re writing a play that wants to have a conversation with people, have the conversation as even-handedly as possible. I’ve resisted drawing too many conclusions, because it’s a work in progress and I want to see what people say.”

It strikes me that this is perhaps one of the best ways to approach current events and issues that sweep along in their wake a whole storm of different opinions and perspectives; a piece of theatre can let itself be carried on those gusts rather than obstinately trying to fight a route through them. By the time Revolution Square is finished, it will have been influenced by the immediate witnesses Holmes spoke to in his initial journalistic hunt for information, by the actors involved (and in the case of two of these actors, by their own experiences of Russia) and by numerous audience members, whose reactions will no doubt be coloured by Western culture and attitudes, giving the piece a rich and varied flavour that is hopefully far more representative of actual experience and reactions than one authorial voice could ever be.

Holmes also hopes that this piece will have resonance beyond the current situation in Russia. “The conversations about developments in capitalism, about financial crisis, about the role of religion, about individuals versus the state, about idealism and cynicism, about apathy – all of those things are relevant to us,” he explains. “It’s about producing something that I think is relevant to the audience here, but that is very specific to the situation in Moscow also. It’s about being timely and universal at the same time.”

As Holmes puts it, Revolution Square is ultimately about “seeing the bigger picture”. This widening of the lens applies both to the resonance of Russian politics for the rest of the world and to the myriad of responses that Holmes is inviting to richen and enhance his creation. I personally look forward to adding my perspective to that picture when I get to see the first snapshot later this week.

Revolution Square is being performed every evening this week (12 – 17 March) at the Bush Theatre, followed by post-show discussions. Check back for more thoughts on the process on Thursday after I have seen the show.