You realise that as soon as you enter the auditorium of Notting Hill’s Gate Theatre to witness the UK premire of State of Emergency by German playwright, Falk Richter, in an English translation by David Tushingham.
Both the stage and the auditorium are about six times as wide as they are deep, so that no onlooker sits more than a few metres from the actors.
The two, however, could be miles apart for separating the stage from the audience is a continuous row of sliding glass windows.
Of course, these could simply be a feature of this ‘luxury’ residence’s living room where the entire action takes place but the implication could not be clearer. This is the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. Big Brother is watching this family, and for the next eighty minutes the audience is Big Brother.
The play consists of one continuous conversation between a man and a woman (who are never given names), and through their words we learn about the ways in which the authorities have tapped into people’s aspirations and fears to create a society in which they can easily be controlled.
The house in which they live is part of The Sunset Lake Celebration Community, a place people spend their lives climbing the social ladder in order to enter. A place of apparent security in which children have safe schools, the biggest nightmare for most residents is to lose their social status and be expelled into the outside world with its ‘savages’.
This desire for self-preservation leads the woman to overlook the horrors occurring all around her, nonchalantly declaring ‘when they play the waves, then they’re doing that so we can’t hear the screams, the gunshots’. She also describes the bodies found on the electric wires of outsiders trying to enter the community and share in its joys, for it never occurs to her that they might actually be of people trying to escape.
The man, on the other hand, has woken up to the mind control being exerted upon them all, and can no longer bring himself to tow the line at work, laughing and joking in all the right places. He too, however, is fearful of being forced out, which places him in a limbo situation, with his wife constantly complaining that he is not the man she married and that his behaviour is endangering them both.
The community itself works to the ‘bread and circuses’ philosophy of the late Roman Empire, where every third day was a bank holiday, and also brings to mind Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Theirs is a world that feeds people to fulfil their basic needs, and then provides them with non-stop entertainment to prevent them from thinking and challenging the status quo. We learn that there are numerous handicraft and drama classes, but these are run so that no-one ever really interacts with each other.
Later on, the son (played by James Lamb) is introduced. He has an obscure argument with his parents, but when he leaves at the end and the man says: “He’s not coming back”, we suspect we know what it was all about. The man and the woman realise the depravity of their own situation, but still lack the will power to escape from the community. They feel, however, that they cannot stop their son from seeking freedom, even though he risks dying in the process.
Both Geraldine Alexander and Jonathan Cullen delivered exactly what their parts demanded of them, although this did not always make for captivating drama. Since the woman was in denial throughout, whilst the man remained in a state of permanent torment, the piece lacked sufficient alterations in mood to sustain interest on occasions.
There were also times when the audience simply felt like onlookers. I certainly felt that if Big Brother really had been watching the conversation, police would have been bursting into the living room halfway through the performance to suppress the ‘heretics’. In the event, the only thing that suggested anyone was watching was doctored pictures of the community (without the bodies) appearing on the couple’s television screen. Though the couple were clearly threatened with expulsion, the relatively restrained intervention on the night made this police state appear a little more liberal than it was supposed to have been.
That these criticisms could be levied against this play, was in part the result of the fact that it made the audience think about so many things. Indeed, the scenario had so much potential that, in whatever direction it had been taken, it would have left many angles untouched. It seems more fruitful to dwell on what the production did achieve and, though it shed little new light on the Orwellian-style police state, that is hardly the point. Instead, it provided a unique insight into the reactions and ambivalent feelings towards the police state of three individuals who were intrinsically caught up in it. And, with its highly innovative staging, it did this in a powerful and memorable manner.