Boiling Frogs is not a political play

Boiling Frogs, Southwark Playhouse, 18 September 2010

The Factory has always prided itself on being different from other theatre companies, so this fixed run of a single production marked something of a normalisation of their style.

It was also unique in being the first Factory production to have no women in the cast. This was a shame.

The only vaguely ‘Factory’ flavour here was the play’s alternating cast, the variations of which were fixed in advance with no audience participation in the structure of the performance.

There was limited audience participation in the assembly of the stage properties, which were laid out in kit form as the auditorium filled up. The cast mingled with the incoming ticket holders and asked some of them to fit together the slotted wooden components to form a table, shelf and so on.

The performance area was a square surrounded on four sides by shallow stepped platforms on which the audience sat. A fluorescent tube hung vertically at each corner and a square lighting rig was suspended overhead.

The action of the play, which lasted 90 minutes with no interval, showed the aftermath of a political protest in a not-too-distant-future dystopia in which global warming was uncontrolled, riots were commonplace and dissent was criminalised.

This situation had come about through the gradual erosion of civil liberties which had passed unnoticed, just as frogs are alleged not to respond to the gradual heating of water in a pan.

Having been arrested, protester Mark Stone found himself detained in the basement of a police station. He engaged in an unnatural, stichomythic exchange with the duty officer, who actually responded to his political and philosophical points, which is not how the agents of crypto-fascist states typically react to rational argument.

This set the tone for the rest of the play in which Mark acted a sock puppet spokesman for the writer as he engaged with and generally outwitted the stupid, nasty copper.

He was later joined by another protester dressed like Gandhi and a police officer who had himself been arrested. As the arguments and elaborations of political stances unfolded among the detainees, the lighting rig would at intervals descend by a few feet and the fluorescent tubes lurch inwards. This was intended to create an atmosphere of increasing pressure somewhat akin to the rising temperature felt by the boiling frogs of the title.

At the play’s climax the lighting rig was just above the actors’ heads and the audience had been ushered onto cushions at the very edge of the performance area crowding in on the cast.

It was revealed that the police officer was under arrest for the murder of a child, an act that had provoked a recent riot. The demonstrator confessed that he had come to what was supposed to be a peaceful protest equipped with a bomb to detonate in retaliation at the failure of the health service to treat his father properly. In anger and frustration, Mark attacked and killed the other protester and immediately reeled in shock at his actions.

After nearly one and half hours of talking, a single act made Mark Stone aware that he was not the person he thought he was. This is a fascinating thing to happen to a character. The only problem was that this intriguing twist came right at the end of the play, which had otherwise been devoid of dramatic turns and reversals.

It raises the question of what happens to someone after they realise they are not who they thought they were.

This turning point for the character could have been the introduction to a further stage in the play exploring the implications both personal and political of this realisation. It is possible to imagine the play being reworked so that what we saw was compressed and made into the first half of a longer play in which we either see the aftermath of the night’s events, or even in which we see the jailer and prisoner roles inexplicably reversed.

My focus here on the principal character’s development is a reflection of how that seemed to comprise the real action of the play. I saw a character undergo a sudden and dramatically interesting transformation, rather than a political play in the sense that the writer intended it.

I would go so far as to say that this was not a political play: its portrayal of future “dystopian” Britain was far too comic and benign to act as a call to arms to prevent it becoming reality.

The police were buffoonish and stupid; the duty officer was Dogberry with a gun. The effect of that characterisation was to create a world that evoked neither fear nor anger. By laughing at the police, an audience was actually being reassured that a police state is nothing to be scared of.

Boiling Frogs left me feeling neither angry nor scared, merely curious as to what happened next to Mark Stone.

A political play with real impact needs to push the audience beyond what it already knows, understands and accepts into truly disturbing territory.

Boiling Frogs gave us that only in its last ten minutes and then only on a personal, not political level for the main character.

But for the most part the clownish copper (at one point donning a Carmen Miranda fruit hat) crossing verbal swords with an unbowed, articulate dissident was “entertainment” in the most derogatory sense of the word.

Update 10 January 2011: In a fascinating twist it appears that a real-life ‘protester’ known as Mark Stone (an alias) has been revealed to be an uncover police officer:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-12148753

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