Maydays blitzes through more than 30 years of political revolutions, turmoil, demonstrations and dissent. Moving from the Fall of Berlin in the spring of 1945 to Callaghan’s 1978-9 so-called Winter of Discontent to the early years of Thatcherism, David Edgar’s 1983 work charts the conflict between human nature and the demands of forcing social and political upheaval.
Currently showing at Stratford’s studio theatre The Other Place, and revived by Edgar and director Owen Horsley, Maydays is strikingly avant-garde in its innovative re-imagination of audience configuration. The show runs for a total of approximately three hours and twenty minutes, and there are two intervals. During each interval, the seating is changed with the effect that audience members return to different vantage points, and so are able to witness the following action from a new perspective. By the play’s third part – ‘England, 1978-1984’ – Horsley and designer, Simon Wells, have taken us from theatre-in-the-round, followed by seats tracing 270 degrees of the stage, to a more conventional end-on arrangement. Stylistically, this seems to echo the break-neck pace of the production as a whole, particularly as innumerable different socialist movements spring up in the UK, then fall out of favour, or suffer splinter groups; while the party line in the Soviet bloc seems never to be consistent, and it becomes almost impossible for characters like Mark Quartley’s Martin Glass and Jay Taylor’s Pavel Lermontov to ever know where they stand, what to think or (perhaps most importantly), say.
The danger with a production like Maydays is that it ends up more like a documentary than a piece of dramatic art. In the same vein, theatre which becomes too bound to history can be difficult for audiences to get into, especially if they lack in-depth knowledge of the period under investigation. Fortunately, although at first one finds oneself spending some time getting used to the pace and style of this production, Maydays manages to evade these pitfalls ably. Consisting of different members of the company, the chorus offers moments of narration and context throughout the performance, with scenes pausing or moving into slow-motion. This allows for overviews of the landmark events on which the following scenes and dialogue rely. There is a sense, too, that we are being lifted from a conventional time stream. This production jumps around, and events are linked thematically rather than chronologically. It makes sense, for instance, for a sobering exposé of the realities of life in Budapest and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc to come immediately after scenes delving into the fantasies of British revolutionary groups of the Russian socialist utopia.
Despite being infused with the fashion, music, propaganda and culture of the period (shameless flares and floral shirts, “it’s only rock’n’roll”, “Labour isn’t working”, onstage smoking) Maydays feels acutely relevant. Its central paradox, human nature, and the demands of the revolution are encapsulated throughout in verbal, physical and ideological juxtapositions that should still resonate with all of us. Including two references to Trump and a closing scene that affirms the ultimate primacy of the individual conscience over the binary, ends-justify-means, zero-sum politics of division that came to characterise a period of history, Edgar’s abiding message is (fairly) clear: there is no cause that is really worth losing yourself for.
Maydays is an accomplished, intense and engaging look at Europe’s tumultuous post-war years. As well as this, it is necessary and validates the role of theatre as a vehicle for political and social diagnosis.
Maydays is playing The Other Place until 20 October 2018. For more information and tickets, see here.