Review – New World Order – Hydrocracker at Shoreditch Town Hall via Barbican

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Who do I love? Harold Pinter. What do I love? Promenade theater. Bring ’em together? It’s like gelato affogato, my favorite dish drowned in a tasty drink of its own. When I read about Hydrocracker’s mini-Pinters promenade, it was the theater event of the fall calendar for me. I got shafted a bit getting tickets due to a miscommunication with the Barbican box office, but, as ever, continuing to check the website meant when some early birds returned their tickets, I was able to jump on them right away and get myself locked in for this show.

Beforehand I was pacing nervously outside Shoreditch Town Hall (near Old Street); we were wanded down, had our ID checked, then were let inside. The evening promised a mix of Press Conference, One for the Road, Precisely, Mountain Language and The New World Order – short plays united by, well, it said human rights but I thought more “torture” – only one of which I had seen before.

We started with a press conference in a bright shiny room with folding chairs and good lighting, and the Inquisitor of “One for the Road” speaking. It’s not just our rights that are being looked out for by our government; it is our mental hygiene. Bad thoughts aren’t just dangerous, they’re an illness in society. We should be grateful caring people are working to keep us clean. Slowly, as the head of the ministry of culture kept speaking, the questions from the press corps died down. I couldn’t help but think it was exactly what most politicians in democratic societies secretly wish they could make happen – God knows the Russians are very effectively putting it into practice through careful assaults and even executions.

After this point I hesitate to speak in too great depth about what happened. We see the same actors several times: the wife in “One for the Road” comes back again and again as “the wife,” attempting to visit her spouse or to negotiate with his keepers; her husband, the torture victim in “One for the Road,” is in scene after scene, as is the Inquisitor (technically named Nicolas in “One for the Road” but I prefer my name). If I’m honest, I found Nicolas less terrifying and The Wife a weaker actress than I did in the September production at the Print Room; but as this evening was aimed at creating a rather different audience experience, this was only a small detraction.

Together, all of these short plays create a reasonably unified narrative, in which families are separated, people are taken into small rooms where they are subject to rules they cannot understand and punished for made up crimes, and wives and mothers desperately try to find and save, or, at least, succour their partners and children. And the environment adds greatly to the effect, as we move from the fairly well kept council chambers to the decaying, forgotten basement rooms, where voices can be heard yelling behind closed doors. It showed how possible it was for this to literally be going on under our feet as we walk down the streets of London.

Meanwhile, we audience members are bullied by the “guards.” I admit, they did a good job of keeping us going from room to room (crowd control is always a problem for promenades) but also of heping us feel a sense of a loss of control and reduction from person into number. We were separated at random from the people we came with; ordered to go this way and that; asked humiliating and pointless questions; had our identities checked at several points; and had to deal with obnoxious flashlights being shined in our faces in an inimidating fashion. I could feel our control being wrested away; and I tell you, it was effective enough that I felt my instinct to fight to preserve my dignity kicking in. One of the women who was being asked obnoxious questions refused to answer; I had a guard grab my arm when I went the wrong way and I tell you I told him off for daring to touch me. In fact, I felt like some people working this show may have been getting just a little bit too much into their characters, much like the ridiculous TSA people do when they think that by harassing people for carrying a slice of apple off of an international flight they’re somehow keeping the United States safe from terrorism. Mr. Arm Grabber did take me aside and tell me rather more politly that due to health and safety regulations I was in fact not allowed into area X; but there was some part of me that was ready to just disturb all of the performances and say, basically, “There are thirty of this here in this room and four of you. Just you try waving that big stick around again and you can guess where you’re going to be finding it in about two minutes.” I had to restrain myself from getting shirty and organizing a citizens revolt. I could see some other audience members were uncomfortable with what was going on, but yet still staying in their/our roles as quiet sheep. Is this how our right to self determination is taken away, by people’s unwillingness to see it happening in front of our eyes?

Overall, I have to give Hydrocracker great credit for creating an environment where they were able to instill a sense of fear of what it would actually be like to undergo the things Pinter writes around in these plays, and to create a sense of urgency to reclaim our own rights from a government happy to take them away in the name of keeping us “safe.” While the acting was not perfect, as a promenade event, “New World Order” is unmissable.

(This review is for the 9:15 show that took place on Friday November 18th, 2011. The show runs through the 11th of December and though it is sold out, returns do appear on the website regularly. Remember to dress as if you were going to be standing outside for the length of the show, as after the first half hour no seating is provided and the basement rooms are very dank.)

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