Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Get Stuff, Break Free, National Theatre

Review: Get Stuff, Break Free, National Theatre

Up on the roof of the National Theatre, with one of the world’s leading cities stretched out below, Made In China are staging a protest poem of sorts.

Sorry, sorry: a celebration. There are coloured bulbs strung around the concrete, a table full of cucumber sandwiches and pitcher upon pitcher of Pimms. What’s more, if you hang around long enough, there’ll be fireworks.

Because, fuck it, we deserve it, don’t we? We deserve a sodding pat on the back. Look at what we’ve all done. Look at the city around us. This summer, it’s the centre of the whole fucking world. We Brits did that. We plucky little Brits.

In style and spirit at least, Get Stuff Break Free is more or less identical to Made In China’s last piece, We Hope That You’re Happy (Why Would We Lie?). If that piece, with its chugged Buds and chomped ices, had America in its crosshairs, their latest is certainly aimed at us Brits. On the one hand, its accusation is more direct. On the other, the parched sarcasm loses some of its sting second time around.

Again, the four performers speak Tim Cowbury’s liturgical text at breakneck speed. Again, they break off into half-committed dances. And again they gorge themselves to illustrate the sated, smiling compliance of consumerist culture. This time, however, these elements feel rather more inert this time around, largely because they pose less of a challenge to the performer. The brain freeze remain, but the belching has gone. A faceful of sandwiches is less a form of torture than a stint in the stocks as village idiot. It’s a far cry from the champagne swilled from an exercise bike in Stationary Excess.

What you lose is any sense of forward momentum. Where previously that ingestion has become harder as the show continues, as stomachs grow fuller, heads, tipsier and the tempo, more and more furious. Get Stuff Break Free works through repetition and, at the end of each cycle, one performer drops out. The trouble is that, when we realise the pattern, we pre-empt the whole, and making the same point for an hour does nothing to increase its forcefulness. Once we’ve twigged the impetus, there’s little extra to be gained. For a repetitive structure to work, it needs disrupting and breaking.

If it struggles as theatrical event, it really flounders into futility and naivety in terms of content. There’s great pleasure in twigging what its up to – namely an attack on the impossibility of meaningful dissent in this country.

Mostly, the four performers speak as if a four-strong band, recounting the history of the group. It becomes apparent, as Cowbury’s text drops in savvy references to civil wars and colonialism (“We were massive in India”), that their history is that of Britain refracted. They invoke the spirit of the riots, rustled up against the million that marched against the Iraq war. They talk of analogy and euphemisms and examples, of indirect speech that skirts the real issue. They light sparklers and throw confetti and smile these increasingly unconvincing smiles. When problematic stats crop up, those embarrassing socio-political zits like inequality, they’re circumnagivated. Because here, in London, in Britain, in this Olympic, Jubilee, bumper leap year, we’re so very fortunate. The questions they invited early on, dwindle until – sadly, regrettably, a tad unfortunately – there’s just no time.

Or, as Bill Hicks might have put it, in 34 short sharp seconds: “Go back to bed United Kingdom. Your government has figured it out…You are free. To do as we tell you.”

What’s interesting is that tone of absolute cynicism, which allows Made In China to say one thing and mean the opposite. It’s a fruitful mode that might be called heartfelt irony.

However, despite attempts to acknowledge its own problems as an event (“On behalf of the National Theatre/American Express…”), it winds up snagging as you try to swallow it. It’s very hard to criticise the establishment for pacifying techniques from the roof of its largest subsidised theatre or to target analogy using an artform that relies on it.

As the fireworks finally launch – smaller than usual display fireworks because, as the nanny state and health and safety have decreed, we can’t be trusted – our gaze is drawn skywards. We look at the pretty colours and, by the time we look back to the stage, the last performer – a lone voice of cynicism – has disappeared. It’s the best moment by some distance; full of quiet dignity and the sort of potency that need not explain itself.

Photograph: Made In China

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