There's an intricate and complicated play of liveness and repetition, of reality and theatre, in Rob Drummond's The Majority. We're sitting in the Dorfman and we all have keypads on lanyards round our necks. The show is a monologue, in dialogue with us: Rob Drummond tells us a true(?) story about a chance encounter in the immediate aftermath of the Scottish Independence vote and the picaresque journey into political activism that turns on a piece of direct action that got the narrator into some trouble but also provoked an anguish realisation about what is wrong with our political discourse. At points we use the keypad to vote in response to certain questions.
Frequently during the show, Drummond - actually, I'm going to call him Rob; he seems so friendly. Frequently, during the show, Rob reassures us - or seems to be trying to reassure us - that this is all just theatre. At other moments, he seems exhilarated by moments from his story that were 'real, not just theatre'. But what is theatre and what is real in this show? As we drift out of the auditorium at the end, the screens around the stage show - or appear to show - photographs that corroborate at least some part of his story. Is the story he tells us real? He owns up to a couple of adornments to the tale, implying of course that the rest is all as it was, but is this true? As I note later, there are bits of the story that, perhaps deliberately, don't add up. I wondered often if the keypads really were working; how would we know? In fact, I wondered if my keypad was working. Not because I genuinely thought it wasn't, but I found myself frustrated that my splendid individual vote was lost anonymously in the crowd of others.
And that's part of the point. This is a show that brings firmly to the centre of our attention the flaws and burrs and conundrums of voting. We are asked probably something around 20 questions during the show. At times, I responded easily. At others, I hesitated. At moments, I wanted him to define the terms of the question more precisely. At one point, I felt the need the explain my vote (and could have). At some points, we, the audience, applauded our own votes (there was around a 90% vote against Brexit and we all burst into applause, for, what? For our own opinions. More on this later.)
And Brexit hangs heavily on this show, or specifically the Referendum does. But I guess it's going to hang heavily on most British theatre shows for a few years. The title The Majority put me immediately in mind of Alexis de Tocqueville's notion of the 'tyranny of the majority' which he observed particularly in America, but we can all feel it in the winner-takes-all logic of the Brexiteers. You lost, get over it.
There was something weird about the keypad, which somehow emphasised that curious shuttling between liveness and repetition. The keypad both felt very live - my vote was actually going to affect something that would show up on that screen up there - and repetitive - I'm making the same gesture again and again, the keypad (and the screen) is an instrument of the mediated world, plus my nagging doubts that the keypad was even working. There's a very interesting moment where he brings up the website of a Scottish neo-Nazi called Ralph Weiss. Rob tells us that he has discovered Ralph's real name and address and he wants to post it up on the guy's website. He hesitates, because this could expose the guy to danger. And we get to vote on whether he presses send or not. This feels, momentarily, like a moment of liveness with bells on (liveness plus jeopardy plus high stakes). Of course, the doubts creep in: is this actually a real website? There seemed to be a captcha box that he didn't fill in. Surely a neo-Nazi with a personal website would set his site up so he approved comments before they appeared? SPOILER ALERT: And now I do a bit of googling and it looks like this was actually a fake. I feel slightly disappointed.
This moment, though, takes us into the darker and more important questions of the show. SPOILER ALERT: the turning point in his story is when he has been drawn into a political action, a counter-demonstration against fascists (probably) who are protesting against Syrian immigrants being allowed to settle in Scotland. Later he sees one of the fascists (probably) with his guard down and he punches him in the face. For this he gets a suspended sentence and the growing sense that this is exactly what is wrong with our politics. We have become so polarised, we risk dehumanising the opposition, to the point where we feel it is acceptable to assault someone physically because of their opinions. This nagging concern builds, thanks to what is either (a) an elegant (and oddly old-fashioned) dramaturgical device involving a letter or (b) something that actually happened, into an impassioned call for dialogue, for respecting one another's point of view, for saying, when encountering people with whom we disagree 'That's fascinating. Why do you believe what you believe?'
As someone who has, like Rob (really or fictionally), engaged in Twitter battles with alt-right nutters with their Pepe avatars and endlessly repeated vocabulary (cuck, libtard, liberal tears, Kek, virtue signalling, etc.), this hits home to me. Perhaps the liberals and the left did spend too much time abusing Trump's supporters as racists and not enough time trying to understand their position and discussing it with them. Perhaps the liberal elites of the metropolitan centres did dismiss the views of the Brexit voters and maybe that's been going on for decades. Perhaps we do talk to ourselves too much. Perhaps a lot of our political engagement is like this audience, applauding one another for correctly holding our beliefs.
But here's where the liveness of the show is complicated. I think it would have been very different watching this show a week ago. At one point, Rob laments that we all too easily describe our opponents as Nazis and racists. But Charlotteville is surely a reminder that some of our opponents are Nazis and racists. When Rob tries to remind us that they're not all Nazis, it's hard not to hear an echo of Donald Trump's oily prevarications ('not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me' he said in his disastrous, repulsive press conference on Tuesday). Rob worries that we have got ourselves to a point where we think it's okay to assault people because of what they believe, but again, I hear an echo of Trump, focusing only on the actions and not the broader picture. As it happens, I am uneasy about using violence as a political weapon, though to see all violence as intrinsically the same is to indulge in Trumpian moral equivalence (isn't it?). I wouldn't have thought these things - or at least not with the same force - a week ago. The liveness of the show means that the ground is shifting beneath it. Its liveness almost undoes the show. At the moment, it must be an extraordinary thing to perform, because the resonances of these debates are urgent and changing all the time.
Which is probably why I'd like the moral temperature of the show to be turned up a bit. Rob Drummond is a terrific performer: mild, outraged, likeable, sweet in manner, which means that when he punches the guy, it wrongfoots you in an interesting way. It feels odd, but interestingly odd. It's shocking, barely credible. But, for me, the keypad-voting device never lets the intensity of the debates ratchet up enough. There's always a certain novelty feeling to it - even when we're answering one of the many variants of the Trolley Problem - not helped by a kind of gameshow theme tune that rings out each time. The technology feels maybe gimmicky? I felt the same thing a few years ago in Rimini Protokoll's Best Before where we all had a handset and played a kind of video game through the show. Maybe I just don't go for that sort of thing, but it feels lighter than I think it should.
The show leads to a final vote where we are asked whether it is ever helpful to be abusive to people (Rob explains 'physically or verbally') for the opinions they hold. He has steered us pretty strongly to say no. I voted yes. Why? Not because I think you should punch people for their beliefs. And not because I think it is 'helpful' to shout 'racist' at someone who admits to some mild discomfort with immigration. But what counts as abusive? How about mockery? I suppose I think it can be helpful to mock someone's beliefs because it's a ferocious way of communicating that some beliefs are ludicrous. And then, what is a belief? Beliefs aren't private mental attitudes locked quietly away in our heads are they? If I know what someone's belief is, it's because they've expressed it and expressing a belief is an action. When the protestors attacked the white supremacists in Charlottesville, it wasn't because of the white supremacists' beliefs: it was because they were expressing those beliefs by marching with torches, shouting fascist slogans, using paramilitary groups to intimidate people, and focusing their actions on defending a symbol of support for slavery. Of course not everyone who voted for Trump is a neo-Nazi. Not everyone who voted for Brexit is a racist. But equally we shouldn't let some elaboration of Godwin's Law stop us from identifying and calling out the rise of genuine fascism - and we are seeing the emboldened resurgence of fascism, here and in America and elsewhere.
Rob tells us that dialogue is vital. He thinks difference of opinion is important. If we all thought the same, we'd learn nothing. And he tells us that he's going to the Dorfman foyer and he wants to talk to us. I could have said this stuff to him, but he already had a crowd round him and I decided to go home. But it's to the show's credit that as I cycled home, I felt like a heel for foreclosing the dialogue.
I liked this show immensely and David Overend has done wonderful things with an admirably light touch. I kind of disagreed with it more and more as it went on, but that's surely good. It provoked me and I can feel there's a rather jumpy defensive quality to what I've written here. It's got under my skin. It's in the round, which feels right and democratic. There's a hexagon structure suspended above the stage that refers to the bees that one of the figures in the story keeps, but also suggests 'hive mind'. It reminded me of a number of shows that have that same indeterminate mixture of reality and fiction, the story sitting on a borderline of comedy and darkness, that tone of amiable despair. I think of Daniel Kitson, obviously, but also the podcast S-Town. There are just touches of Tim Crouch in the riddling theatrical playfulness. The show is superimposed somewhat on the Mosquitoes set. This feels appropriate because it gives the show a pleasingly provisional quality; it resists the monolithic. It is a quietly profound piece of theatre.