Acts of Resistance - The Bristol Old Vic

Acts of Resistance - The Bristol Old Vic

 ‘And oftentimes excusing of a fault doth make the fault the worse by the excuse’ Act IV, Scene II, King John

I really, really wanted to like Acts of Resistance. Two years in the making, bringing together four community groups from across the UK, blending feminism with candid explorations of intergenerational inheritance through the thematic lens of a fracking protest: on paper, it sounds like an absolute firecracker of a production. But, unfortunately, the firecracker never quite caught alight.

First and foremost, the overarching narrative in Acts was lacking. The general principle was that we followed four protagonists’ lives as they decided to attend an anti-fracking protest, culminating in a rousing chorus scene complete with a rendition of Adele’s Hometown Glory. An interesting premise, but lacking in a payoff; they arrive at the protest: now what? Perhaps as a compensatory measure, each of Acts’ four narratives had its own micro-ending: a teenager takes a stand and watches the sunrise; a family in a sinking boat watch flares being fired; a suicidal elderly woman finds a sense of purpose, and a mother-daughter relationship is saved through a long-overdue conversation. But these felt like distractions from the slightly directionless overall narrative: in having a third of the production taken up by various endings, Acts never really hit any sort of unified payoff, beyond a protest which seemed to be of no real consequence to any of the characters.

This slightly non-committal ‘boldness’ followed the lack of payoff into the rest of Acts’ dramaturgy. Acts set itself the mammoth task of weaving four disparate narratives together into one, “bringing together four distinctive communities across England to create four unique stories... combined into one play”. But it failed to deliver. Whilst each of the four story-worlds had its own well-developed internal logic, their presence within the same production felt incidental at best. The plot device of the impending fracking protest provided a point of convergence for the four narratives to head towards, and there were some interesting parallels (oil, digging, intergenerational issues) bubbling under the surface, but neither of these devices were given the space to be fully realised. Beyond some reprised lines and its loose environmentally-conscious framing, the production as a whole lacked a coherent grammar, never quite making sense of why these four stories were running alongside one another. Perhaps as compensation for this lack of dramaturgical purpose, Acts was thematically very busy. Motifs drifted to the surface and were then forgotten about. Acts was a play about fracking, and also feminism, and also Brexit, and also intergenerational issues, and also class, and also mental health - and yet none of the above. Taking on a few too many ‘hot topics’ to give rise to a coherent message or question, Acts ultimately felt full of sound and fury signifying nothing in particular.

The overly complex narrative was perhaps partly down to a desire to give its large community ensemble slightly larger and more meaningful roles. Each individual story-world was populated with a cast of characters which, whilst definitely helping to build a sense of a universe beyond the stage, were difficult to keep track of amongst the overarching four-fold narrative. Each story-world essentially had to have a complete narrative arc rounded off in twenty minutes, causing focus to be taken off each narrative’s protagonist. In this way it became difficult for the audience to invest in their arcs. The protagonists were instead left fighting with an ensemble to make themselves heard. Whilst the inclusion of such a wide array of characters might have been a deliberate attempt to make a point about community and the messiness of the everyday, this was out of step with Acts’ overarching structure, which was predicated on the audience caring about the four protagonists holding the narrative together. The moments where they came together to speak as a quartet were exciting and showed real promise, and could definitely have been pushed further and placed with more purpose. Broadly, it felt like Acts didn’t quite trust its audience to be able to extrapolate from the macro-scale arc into the micro-scale stories, and in trying to explicate itself - ironically - made its overall arc quite difficult to follow.

The lack of trust invested in the audience proved to be a running theme in Acts. Exposition was clunkily shoehorned in, peaking with the line “can we please start this meeting about fracking”. Whilst many of Acts’ (numerous) characters felt warm and true-to-life - my personal favourite being Neil, a widowed Quaker with a dog called Hope - they all had the habit of breaking into unnaturally poetic and emotionally eloquent monologues. These perhaps served a narrative function, but failed to serve the production as a whole. Whilst Acts did appear to be self-aware in this respect, with its more Clintons-esque moments being interjected by dry one-liners - “people forget that most people aren’t from London” - this became its own slightly tired and overused cliche.

The standard of performance was broadly good, especially considering that the cast consisted wholly of non-actors. Special mention must go to the production’s excellent teenage lead, Liana Cottrill, playing an academically gifted young Bristolian. With her excellent command of both naturalism and verse, Cottrill was able to rise above Acts’ dramaturgical issues to make the audience genuinely invest in her arc, delivering a verse-monologue about feeling powerless with a goosebump-inducing emotional punch. However, the performances elsewhere were slightly weighed down by overused ensemble reaction and lines said in unison for comic effect: it would have been far more gratifying to see the rest of the cast being given the scope to perform with a little more emotional depth.

Acts also made some bold attempts at using physical theatre. Its midpoint was taken up by a piece of fracking-inspired choreography; one of the four narratives took place on a sinking boat, and the final protest scene was played largely through slow-motion. However, in all these instances, the movement felt slightly clunky and tagged-on, not to mention criminally under-energised. With a bit more time, energy and care, and a more coherent movement vocabulary carried into the rest of the production, perhaps these moments could have really provided some much-needed lift. The same goes for the lighting design which lacked imagination, rarely venturing beyond very literal interpretations of what was happening onstage (but this is slightly more forgivable given the lack of all-cast tech time).

Overall, Acts of Resistance was admirable in what it set out to do, and in some sense this review is of little consequence: community theatre is as much about what happens offstage as it is about the performance. Unfortunately, this is a review of the performance, not the project as a whole, and it would be patronising and unethical to afford it dramaturgical leeway on the grounds of it being a community production. Whilst conceptually bold and featuring a few moments of promise, Acts of Resistance took on too much to feel narratively coherent and failed to commit the form it was pushing towards: ultimately leaving its audience with little in the way of emotional impact or any real take-home-message.

 **

Two stars

 Clodagh Chapman