Monday 30 December 2013

Theatre review: Protest Song

It's a long time since Rhys Ifans was a regular face at the National Theatre but he returns now to take up residence in The Shed as Danny, a homeless alcoholic who's spent the last seven years sleeping on the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. The Square Mile is his idea of the perfect place for rough sleepers, as there's business people to beg cash from during the day, but nobody lives there so it's quiet at night. Things start to get a lot less quiet in the winter of 2011 though, as Tim Price's Protest Song is about what happens when someone who has no choice but to sleep rough is faced with hundreds of people who are doing it to make a political statement. St Paul's was of course the focal point of the Occupy London movement, and so for some months Danny shares his home with the protesters.

After initially resenting the intrusion, Danny realises there's free food available, and spending time in the kitchen means he makes new friends in the camp, finding a new impetus in his life and becoming more politicised. But he soon realises he'll never really be one of them.

A temporary structure is as appropriate a venue as you'll find for a story about a temporary city of tents. Ifans has made a career of playing more or less bedraggled characters, but he's also an actor who can tap into a huge reserve of rage, and though Price paints Danny in a sympathetic light, there's no disguising the fact that he's a dangerously erratic personality. Ifans makes you like him even as he hurls abuse in the audience's faces.

We meet him just before this Christmas, when he's trying to get approved for a bedsit, but is his own worst enemy as far as proving himself trustworthy goes. The story he tells us is specifically that of his time with the Occupy movement, but we do get glimpses of the person he was before he was on the streets - he has a son he's no longer allowed to see, and at one point had what seems like a relatively normal, if unhappy, domestic life. The play's presentation of the alcoholism that ended that and will alienate his new friends as well is pragmatic - Danny knows it's a problem but it seems to be something he only knows in theory, not something he feels he needs to change.

Ifans' performance will inevitably be the most memorable thing about Protest Song but Polly Findlay gives it a production with a real in-your-face energy, helped by Merle Hensel's unexpectedly dynamic design and Lee Curran's lighting - keeping the house lights on well into the performance means Danny can easily interact with the audience, but it also means that when the lights on the audience finally come down he's all the more isolated.

Protest Song by Tim Price is booking until the 11th of January at the National Theatre's Shed (returns and day seats only.)

Running time: 1 hour 5 minutes straight through.

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