Song of Riots, which debuted last week at Oxford’s North Wall Theatre, is an expert study in anger, isolation and masculinity. Written by Lucy Maycock and co-directed with Christopher Sivertsen, the play focuses on two parallel lives: an unnamed Prince from a fairy tale world (Jason Callender), and Lukasz (Christopher Finnegan), the only son of Polish immigrants living in London. Over the course of the play, both of these boys are forced to leave their homes, and to reimagine their relationship to the world around them – a world that has promised them both power and freedom, but which yields only new forms of restraint and disappointment.
Weaving together elements of dance, song, poetry, rap, and visual projection, the play pushes the limits of what theatre is and what it has to offer its audiences. The use of physical theatre is particularly impressive. Finnegan refers to the performance as a “riot ballet,” a phrase that captures both the artistry and the chaos of the choreography. Actors embrace, dance and exchange blows in quick succession before retreating behind stage to linger inside the set’s metal scaffolding. And yet the performance is also built around the importance of sound – raging cries of anger; howls of desperation; steel striking on steel and hands beating on drums. Heard over all of this is the stalking pulse of a lone cello, which lends the performance an eerie and unshakeable sense of darkness.
The inspiration for the play came partly from the 2011 London riots. Wanting to understand the impulses that lay behind that series of events, Maycock and Sivertsen embarked on a process of research and development that spanned over four years. Speaking about the origins of the project, Sivertsen notes: “We began this work with no preconceptions but rather with a desire to understand the nature of riot and to find the link between the joyous and the destructive, the idealistic and the cynical.” What results is a remarkably empathetic production. There is no moralising here, only a desire to listen and to understand. Fittingly, the play’s primary source of reference is William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, the poetry of which is sung and spoken throughout. Like Blake, Maycock and Sivertsen are interested in understanding the move from childhood through to a world of violence and uncertainty. Callender and Finnegan give brilliant performances in this respect, highlighting the combination of danger and vulnerability that lies at the heart of the production.
Song of Riots is a furious, heart-rending work of theatre. It is a play not just about sons and fathers, but about the disasters they wreak upon each other and upon the world around them. While it focuses on only two lives, it is really about all the other Prince Hals wandering in the wilderness, both longing and refusing to reclaim their kingdom.
Song of Riots was at the North Wall Theatre, from Tuesday 14th – Saturday 16th April.