“We are the electorate. And we are not trustworthy”. Theatre company Riot Act explore the fallible nature of democracy in this very funny and direct production.
One of the Ibsen’s least famous plays, The League of Youth treads similar territory to that of its much more successful and more-frequently produced predecessor, An Enemy of the People. In this adaptation, writer Ashley Pearson brings the events of 19th Century Norway forward to that of 21st Century London. The action unfolds in the offices of a company involved in wholesale ice manufacturing. Sten Stensgard, a newcomer from the company’s Dublin branch has turned up at the Christmas party and has incited the lower level employees into declaring the “death of prevailing office politics” with a new movement that they call ‘the League of Youth’. Stensgard’s demagoguing not only wins the hearts of the workers but also the respect of the executives in power, especially Thora and Henry Bratsberg (the current and former CEOs of the company, respectively). As he continues to work his way up, whilst simultaneously remaining the reluctant leader of a new grassroots movement, Stensgard seems able to fool everybody except for his old friend Byron Fieldbo. Bryon recognises that Sten is simply up to his old tricks but, passive man that he is, remains unable to halt any of the fast-approaching chaos wreaking havoc upon the company.
The extremely intimate, no-frills nature of N16’s space is made the most of by director and designer, Whit Hertford, who seems keen to place the audience at the heart of the action. The production is all the better for it – whether in the pockets of conversation that occur simultaneously around you in the group scenes or the tension you feel witnessing full-throttle shouting matches at point blank range, it engages you from start to finish. The set is cordoned off into little areas by mere suggestions of furniture and/or props, creating a fluid space with distinct sections that break up the action subtly.
Engaging you further is the refreshingly natural way that the actors converse and interact with each other, even in such close proximity to each other and to the audience. Niall Bishop, deserves recognition for managing to produce both the charm and sliminess of antihero Stensgard in his own unique way. However, this really is an ensemble performance with nine important performances all working for each other and the production; testament to the strengths of Hertford and to Riot Act as a company.
As is to be expected early on in a run, there were a few moments where lines were dropped and the pace and naturalism momentarily suffered. Yet in these moments, the confidence of the company shone through in their ability to immediately pick up again and use any possible mistakes or line overlaps to their own advantage. What was really impressive was watching a cast that was prepared to take risks in the moment and this is what we need more of in London theatre today.
The adaptation itself does well to find such a relatable way to tell this dated story. There are some really hilarious moments (involving, at one point, nuns and wimples) and the cast take full advantage. Pearson succeeds in finding many parallels with today’s fragile political climate, warning us, quite rightly, about the dangers of devious demagogues that make grandiose promises, preying upon the prejudices of ordinary, working people. The only issue is that the hints at some points become a bit too obvious and lose subtlety, most notably in Fieldbo’s grandstanding, closing monologue, which is as on the nose as it is eloquent.
Any quibbles with the text are, however, overwhelmed by the confidence and vigour of the company and this is a production that deserves a full house. Whether you’re a seasoned Ibsen-enthusiast or a complete novice to the works of the Norwegian, this is a show that anyone can enjoy. Go and buy a ticket.
The League of Youth is at the N16 Theatre until August 18.