When you leave a theatre feeling inspired, confused, empowered, and embarrassed all in one, you know that the show has done its job.
Protest Song at The National Theatre’s Shed is a brilliant, honest piece of writing by Tim Price, and a fearless and exciting performance by actor Rhys Ifans. The show is a 75-minute monologue by Danny, a homeless alcoholic who sleeps rough on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. He tells the audience of the time when he woke up to find a tent city erected by the Occupy movement on his patch.
We hear his stories of working in the Occupy kitchen, lured by the promise of free food, and how he would spend his days begging on the streets. Danny interacts with the audience frequently, asking them for spare change, and to put their phone numbers into the mobile he’s waiting desperately to ring (if he looks after it, he can earn a place in a hostel) – the shocked and in some cases embarrassed audience oblige with a willingness that creates nervous laughter around the auditorium. The show starts quietly as Ifans, with his battered clothes and long unwashed hair, wanders through the audience. The house lights remain up the whole time – in being able to see other audience members’ reactions, it feels like we are intruding on Danny, not the other way around.
The stage set is completely black as Ifans launches into his speech, which paints a picture of people he mingled with during Occupy. It’s a funny and touching depiction, but what we hear is that the people protesting are from all walks of life and yet are all the same person fighting for the same thing.
Polly Findlay’s direction helps to build the production gradually, with an undertone that is lying all the way through to its climactic end. Only subtle lighting choices are used, mainly marking the moments when Danny momentarily forgets his usual happy exterior and craves to hug his son, or have any form of human interaction at all.
Ifans switches his character’s momentum incessantly, and whilst launching into one of his anecdotal funny speeches, he then leads the audience in a round of ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ – except this one is different. “On the first day of Christmas, the system gave to me, a vote in a Democracy”. The song also includes six hacks-a-hacking, four bailed banks, three student loans and two racist cops. The fifth day is reserved for a loud roar of “Boris is a cunt”, which is not the only time it is mentioned in the show.
Finally, Ifans brings the show to its climax by attacking the furniture of the theatre, and whilst the play makes the audience think more gravely about society and its feelings – and perhaps even feel embarrassed – they all very boldly stand up to acknowledge a powerhouse performance by a fearless actor and playwright.
Protest Song is playing at The Shed until 11 January 2014. For more information and tickets see the NT Shed website.