Socialism is Great is not a show for young actors, it’s a show for the world. It is played by the young theatre company Group 64 with as much strength as any professional adult company could.
Anders Lustgarten visited China as research for this play. After the show, he says that he feels the East has been misrepresented in the West and that the short videos with sad music and voiceovers arguably distance us from the issues there, more than they bring us closer to them. I studied political philosophy as a part of my A Levels a couple of years back, and I’m ashamed to admit that until then I couldn’t explain the concept of socialism to anyone. Essentially, I had no idea what it was, and as just one of three students who studied this in my year, I doubt very few students in my school knew, or cared, what it was. Lustgarten’s play is therefore a life-changing one for all audiences.
Socialism is Great follows three sets of characters who are loosely linked by a factory, be they workers or the owner’s son. It’s difficult to imagine people so young working in factories that dangerous; the performances are so mature it feels as if I’m watching adults and almost forget these characters would be their age. And here they are experiencing the chance of a lifetime, performing at the National Theatre, when the young people they emulate are working to the bone somewhere around the world. Socialism is Great cannot help but move you. The scenes are focused, which allows the audience to become immersed in their stories as they develop. Lustgarten opens your eyes as he gives realistic portrayals of life for young people following the Cultural Revolution in China. His personal approach is informative because it’s insightful.
I can only say positive things about these young actors. Max Falkenberg as Li, and Kate Mason as Sange without a doubt are stars – which isn’t to say the whole cast weren’t phenomenal, but these two young actors gave stand out performances. Falkenberg’s character is electrically charged with anger, and the tension which he creates (and furthermore, isn’t afraid to let linger in the silence) leaves the audience stunned by the company’s calibre in the opening scene. And opposite him, Stanley Miles plays the villain repulsively (it has to be said, like Draco Malfoy to Falkenberg’s Potter). In the workers’ scene, Mason captures the dull-eyed, weary manner of someone without hope – a face which is difficult to watch without feeling sorry for her. It’s probably now that I should mention Lustgarten put a Justin Bieber song into this play. And it was a simply joyful moment. Now there’s talent.
Lightening the tone of the piece, Harry Ward and Amy Ratcliffe have great comic timing. I’d say playing comedy is one of the hardest challenges to rise to in drama, and they do so with conviction and natural ease. The tone of this boy-meets-girl scene intelligently considers the concept of Shanzhai (“the subversive images which use traditional communist images, and superimpose dollar symbols or multinational company logos to replace the original symbols”) in relation to presenting oneself genuinely to others. A simple action, but one flagged by social conditioning; this scene places the experiences of youth in a wider perspective.
Group 64 deserves to perform at the National. As an ensemble, it works as an engaged unit. In particular, the rhythm which is created by banging blocks of woods together to emulate machinery is a simple but effective idea, which never loses its pace. Director Nicola Sterry has done a stupendous job with this challenging production, but is blessed with natural talent. Socialism is Great is an education for actors and audience alike, of whatever age.
Socialism is Great played at the National Theatre’s Cottlesloe Theatre on 23 June as a part of the Connections Festival 2012.