"Ash'ab yurid isqat al-nizam"
"Her yer Taksim. Her yer direnish."
On the sunniest, warmest day of the year so far it seemed foolhardy to go and sit in a theatre with no windows for two hours in the afternoon. I could've been sat in the park or in a beer garden. On my balcony at the very least.
But my friend Mark had kindly got me a free ticket to Paul Mason's play (based on his book of the same title) Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere? at the Young Vic on The Cut near Waterloo. They were doing an afternoon run through before filming it, later that evening, to go out on TV in May and needed an audience who'd they'd tempted in with offers of free drinks vouchers. The premise sounded interesting enough for them not to have done that but the promise of an 'immersive' experience was one that struck fear into my heart. It's not that I mind joining in with things but I don't like feeling I HAVE to join in with things.
I needn't have worried. The immersive parts were both minimal and optional and, in fact, the toughest bit was sitting on a hard stage for two hours. My bum was sore and my legs were stiff at the end of the play (you can write your own punchlines there). The premise, back to that, was a timeline, of sorts, from the Arab Spring in 2011 up to the election of Trump in America last year. How did something that started off as a global revolution of the disenfranchised end up being co-opted by the very elite forces it was supposed to overthrow? Did the likes of Trump and the Vote Leave campaign hoodwink people, steal their ideas, and then use them to further their own agendas? Well, of course they fucking did but putting a narrative on to that and telling that story in a different, but still interesting way, was the challenge facing Mason and his cast.
I've had reservations about Paul Mason in the past. Whilst the idea of the globetrotting reporter turned revolutionary is undoubtedly appealing I do sometimes wonder if the provocateur guise he's currently operating under is simply that - a guise. He's obviously a highly intelligent, well-read, and passionate chap but is his fervour for revolution, at the expense of evolution, itself playing into the hands of those he seeks to expose, discredit, and, ultimately, destroy? I wasn't sure. So the play would perhaps, at the very least, help me make my mind up about Mason.
I certainly came away feeling more positive about him than I went in. I liked how he gave both his cast and audience members (in a Q&A at the end) plenty of time to speak, to formulate, and to express their own opinions. He also, and this is very important, listened to what they said, didn't belittle their points (even when they were a little daft), and took time to answer their questions in a non-patronising manner.
The narrative of the play could be debated but it had to have a narrative and nobody could hope to include every aspect of such a huge story in 120 minutes. So we went from the overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia to uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and the rest of the Arab Spring. Via detours to Spain and, bizarrely, anti-tax protests in Madison, Wisconsin we arrived back in the Levant for a look at Erdogan's crushing of dissent in Gezi Park and Greece's monetary problems, election of Syriza, and the subsequent fallout when austerity measures didn't stop but hit harder. The Occupy movement, for all their many faults, cropped up at regular intervals and towards the end a shadowy figure appeared to suggest it was all over for the revolutionaries. You all know who that man is and his shadow may haunt generations to come.
That's obviously a very brief overview of what happened in the play but if you've watched the news, read a paper, or been on social media in the last six years you don't need me to go over it again. There are better qualified people (Paul Mason for one) and if you've not taken an interest yet you're unlikely to be reading this blog anyway.
The style employed veered dangerously close to a sixth form debating group without ever becoming unprofessional. Us, the audience, sat around occasionally joining in with the chanting (the two quotes that top this piece translate from Arabic to "The people demand the fall of the regime" and from Turkish to "Everywhere Taksim. Everywhere resistance", while the cast (each playing various characters of various nationalities and speaking various languages) told the story from the point of view of those who'd lived through it, who ARE living through it. From Greek farmers to Occupy protestors via Besiktas football hooligans and those involved in Egypt's Tahrir Square protests.
This was interspersed with video footage, both real and created for the show, and Mason's sometimes dry, sometimes provocative, narration and editorial content. He wasn't an impartial narrator but neither should he have been. He'd made clear that he'd already covered these events as a journalist and now he was looking at them from a different angle. The journalists, he said, wrote the first drafts of history. The playwrights the second. That he gets to wear both hats is credit, surely, to his work ethic.
He certainly had his cast put in a shift. Khalid Abdalla (decked out in the almost obligatory protestor's shemagh for much of the action) was as impassioned in the Q&A afterwards as his many characters were during the play whilst Sirine Saba and Lara Sawalha (cousin of Julia & Nadia) took responsibility for a lot of the heavy lifting by providing much of the exposition whilst also having to make lighting quick costume changes.
Hannah Arendt, who was quoted along with Bertolt Brecht in the play, said "Revolutionaries do not make revolutions. The revolutionaries are those who know when power is lying in the street and then they can pick it up". This was the open question left hanging at the end of the play. Have Trump, Farage (and, maybe but hopefully not, Le Pen) picked up the momentum provided by the original protestors or does that still reside within those who want a better, fairer world?
For all that these 'populists' have appropriated people's ill feeling towards a self-serving establishment there is still a huge groundswell of support for progressive, inclusive change that seeks to make the world a better place for everyone and not to divide and conquer, not to shift blame to those who are the least blameless and exculpate the very bankers, corporate money men, and bent politicians that led us into this mess in the first place. The pendulum may have swung firmly in the wrong direction at the moment but with planning, co-operation, and positivity it will, one day, swing back. This was only a small play, only a couple of hours in a small room in Lambeth (it might've played out very differently in Stoke-on-Trent), but it was a step in the right direction. For making that step, and for giving us undoubted food for thought, I salute Paul Mason.