Project Dictator review – meta clowning lays bare real terror | Theatre

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We begin with a political sketch show that sputteringly descends into farce. Elements of absurdist theatre seep in, then clowning and finally brooding despair. Rhum + Clay’s latest devised work is a Russian doll of a production, which peels back the layers of performance until it hollows out completely. The writers are occasionally a little too entranced by their own ingenuity but there are still plenty of powerful images and ideas here – particularly the growing sense that the time for play and pretence, in such politically fraught times, is over.

Plenty of power … Project Dictator.
Plenty of power … Project Dictator. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Co-directors and performers Matt Wells and Julian Spooner, along with co-director Hamish Macdougall, have conceived Project Dictator in collaboration with a group of international artists, all living under oppressive regimes. Their influence isn’t felt in direct quotations (the script is far too meta for that) but is instead threaded into the outer edges of the production. It’s there in the flickers of fear in Wells and Spooner’s eyes as they peek anxiously into the wings; the sinister sway of the music and lighting; the absolute impossibility of stopping the show and beginning again.

Long-term collaborators Wells and Spooner bring out the best in each other. Wells is the straight guy: a “polymath theatre maker” determined to make his “state of the nation” political satire. Spooner plays the comedy sidekick, puffing and panting with manic energy and hell bent on creating something fun. But while they’re a great double act, the earlier scenes feel caught somewhere between an Edinburgh sketch show and high-concept satire. They never quite take off.

It’s only in the second half, when a diaphanous curtain drops down in front of the stage, that this show finally reveals itself. We’re left to peer at two clowns, frantically preparing backstage. It’s a powerful design from Blythe Brett that hints at a darker underbelly we choose to ignore: the fearful reality that lurks beneath all that political clowning. The music, performed live by Syrian Jazz musician Khaled Kurbeh, suddenly becomes stranger, scarier, ensnaring. We watch the clowns apply their makeup and, as the white powder swiftly covers over their features, disappear almost completely.



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