I loved The Fall; I absolutely loved it. It’s a play for our times and it is right up my street. Yes, this is a political play but it brims not just with passion and frustration, but with rhythm and authenticity. And at its heart it considers the eternal challenge that all organised groups face – how do we prevent the institutionalised power structures in the society we’re protesting against from replicating themselves within our protest organisations?
Dragging down the monuments to a racist past is pretty current subject matter given the furore over Confederacy statues in the States. However, The Fall centres around the protests and demonstrations in South Africa in 2015 that surrounded the removal of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Cape Town University. And, specifically, it examines the internal politics of the spontaneous student group that sprung up to bring this about to consider the politics of race and decolonialisation, the legitimacy of direct action, and even the dynamics of power itself.
If that sounds heavy, it isn’t, for The Fall is a vibrant show where dance, singing and smart direction from Clare Stopford lift this beyond the perils of having a group of characters standing around arguing. And the language and text, which comes almost entirely from the actors on stage – many of whom were also participants in the actual demonstrations – blends drama with laughs, and the opportunity for each character to have a clearly defined role and purpose.
In this play produced by Baxter Theatre Centre, we follow seven students at the heart of the protest to remove the monument to Cecil Rhodes. They are unified by this common goal, but they are also divided on strategy. Some want to work within existing power structures to have the statue peacefully removed; others consider that both impossible and irresponsible and, instead, demand that it is visibly removed through direct action.
And so right off the bat we are straight into debates that cut to the very heart of the issues that have bedevilled protest movements across time and across the world – is it possible or even desirable to work within oppressive power structures to right the wrongs? These are fascinating debates to have and they are brilliantly dramatised here as sparks fly between the allies, the language kept colloquial and truthful rather than dry and academic.
Yet The Fall doesn’t rest on its laurels; it continues to challenge us and explore the limits of ‘people power.’ The statue is eventually removed – as it was in April 2015. (Attempts to peacefully persuade authorities to promptly take it down failed and so students took it upon themselves to have it removed.) But what should be a moment of success instead exposes the challenge of intersectionality as the movement threatens to fracture and split along lines of privilege and power: gender, sexuality, religion, skin colour, ethnicity and wealth.
The play may be short at eighty minutes but there are many strands of thought and debate that filter into this prism, yet it never feels chaotic. How can any protest movement stay unified when there are so many factors from within and without working to derail it? And once any unifying issue is removed, what hope is there for a protest to build on momentum and enthusiasm to challenge not just low-dangling fruit, but the oppressive power structures themselves?
Where do we go from here?
I loved The Fall; I loved it. Did I say that already? So much to consider here, and all wrapped up in a powerful political and passionate production.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to October 14, 2017
Tickets from £12.
All production images by Oscar O’Ryan