Journalist Paul Mason has had a rather exciting career. Particularly in the 2010s, Mason joined Channel 4 News as culture and digital editor, and has continued to cover some of the most relevant and politically charged news stories around the world. Possibly, one of the least expected places you’d find him is performing in a theatre, but here at the Young Vic, for three nights only, he makes his theatre debut.
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere acts as an updated, live action version of Mason’s book of the same name, published in 2012. Part documentary, part lecture and part drama, Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere charts the recent rise in mass protests and movements all around the world, from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street and attempts to pick it apart, answering just why such sentiments are arising now, internationally.
While waiting for the show to start, Mason and the other actors sat with the audience, interacting with them and discussing their experiences with protests. Sat near Mason, I listened to him talk about the technicalities of tear gas, and he showed us various masks used to defend against tear gas attacks, and what a canister looked like, along with the implications of being in possession of a mask, in that it suggested an imminent attack.
When the show started proper, Mason explained the origins of the book and play, metaphorically describing the recent uprisings as symptomatic of the ‘global car crash’, a kind of disenfranchisement and fundamental disbelief of those in power, where power was concentrated, and could not speak for the 99%. The play then took us way back to France in the 1800s, introducing audiences to anarchist and revolutionary Louise Michel (played by a French accented Sirine Saba clad in military uniform), and the horrific losses the everymen suffered as they continued resisting the invading Germans, but nonetheless stood together in unison.
Fast forward to 2011 and we find ourselves in the heart of the Arab Spring, during the Tunisian Revolution. Angered at the regime and as dissent spread quickly through technology, both mobile and internet networks were shut down, and people took to the streets, networked in their rage online and united in person, chanting ‘Ash’ab yurid isqat al-nizam’, the rallying cry of the revolution demanding the fall of the regime, echoed by the audience, who were taught the chant prior to the show. As a society networked not only online but in mind as well, it was impossible to turn off the human spirit.
As we moved on through the scenes of ensuing protests on that continued to erupt in the wake of the Arab Spring in the years to come on the three screens surrounding the stage, from Athens’ anger at the collapse of their economy, to the 99 percenters occupying Wall Street, to the Syriza Elections, Mason inserted many of his own journalistic anecdotes into the play, with Saba, Khalid Abdulla and Lara Swalha taking on different nationalities and personalities and recreating these protestors as they fought to have their stories told, as Mason wields an actual camera and projects closeups of their faces onto the screens as protest footage serves as their backdrop.
Not all the protestors believe the same thing though. Many express cynicism at Mason’s journalism, unbelieving in the effect his story will have on the general public. There’s a general sense though, that people protest when they’re at their wits’ end, and when there seems no other viable option of having their voices heard and their pleas fall on deaf ears. Watching the footage of masses gathering and actually doing something, despite never having participated in any kinds of protests myself, I saw and understood the flush of power one must feel when they’re part of a movement, and declaring their intention to finally take matters into their own hands and shake up the 1%.
During the Occupy Wall Street sequence, Lara Sawalha played the role of a graduate single mother, unemployed and unhappy, and the screen was filled with echoes of similar sentiment. Audience members took part in a recreation of the ‘human microphone’ that happened during the protest, where everyone echoed powerful words that suggested solidarity amongst the 99%, and even if it didn’t succeed, there’s a kind of comfort in knowing that you are not alone in facing the perils of the world and fighting the power.
Towards the end though, Mason provides a counterpoint to all this in the form of the recent US elections. As much as the current generation is so united in their social networks and dissemination of truths via the internet, the web can also be a force for the spread of fake news, where the falsehoods ends up spreading more than the true truths, and the only thing one can ever rely on anymore is their own gut feeling. A video of footage from Trump’s campaigning was cut with images of protestors against Trump, some even attacking Trump Tower. Sometimes, we exist in the echo chambers that make us blind to the greater sentiment out there, and what was predicted as a landslide Democrat win ended in a shock result.
All revolutions are doomed to end in failure; anarchy can never quite be constant, as they all end up a kind of full circle where one person will eventually result in another taking over. Mason himself isn’t too sure of where the next step in such movements lie, but that it’s likely that they have a long way to develop in order to become a more effective means of communicating demands (what demands? He asks the Wall Street Occupiers. They don’t know themselves, only that what they’re doing is having some kind of effect and is better than rotting away, awakening them at last)
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere succeeds because of its extremely relevant subject matter, as well as Jeremy Herbert’s genius production design, along with Tristan Shepherd’s video design, which the bulk of the play relied on in creating the mood and conveying each protest in concise but effective amounts, and not to forget, the brilliant chameleonic transformations of the cast from one nationality to the next, quickly shifting between accents but all bringing that fire within. At the end of the day, Mason isn’t really making an argument, rather, reporting and charting how things have progressed and been shaken up in the last few years, heralding a new world order, or at least, an awakening to the fact that the people want change. Managing to balance entertainment and education in equally effective amounts is no easy feat, but this production certainly shows it’s possible, and certainly convinces one of the appeal that such movements hold for their participants, often the most viable and impactful ways of having their voices heard by the oligarchs. What else is there to say but viva la revolucion?
Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere plays till 30 March at the Young Vic. Tickets are now sold out. For more information, check out the website here. The show will receive a broadcast on BBC2 on 6 May.
Photo Credit: David Sandison