Pros: An ingenious study in audience participation, in which the actors are there more to guide the proceedings than to decide them.
Cons: The anarchic quality of the debate is inevitable, but a firmer grip would have made the evening flow more smoothly.
It’s the year 2034. You’re a resident of the fictional European country of Dacia, currently in turmoil following the overthrow of the despotic ruler Victor Storm. On arrival, you’re assigned one of three regions in which you live. You might be from the City, which suffers from disease, civil unrest and lack of food; or the Plains, where mineral-rich mining sites are under threat from refugees from the City; or you might be from the Islands, self-sufficient in both fish and power, and as yet spared the plague.
Representatives from all three regions, roughly 15 from each, have been brought together to discuss whether to accept the ‘peacekeeping’ offer of military force from the World Council, or whether to tough it out alone. But here’s the unique twist: you, the audience, are the representatives. And far from passively watching a play, you get to debate the issues amongst yourselves, at first in a separate room away from the other regions, before going head-to-head with the rest of Dacia.
There’s an actor in each region who gently guides and prompts the audience, and who occasionally steps in to break up disputes and keep the arguments running smoothly. But what’s really surprising is the speed with which the audience eagerly buys into the fiction, embellishing their statements with detailed back stories that make their lives in each region seem all the more plausible.
The action is punctuated by a news reporter, whose live bulletins are projected onto the screen behind him. He sums up the state of each debate, both codifying what has taken place and predicting where the decisions will take the nation—a skilled job, which performer Dominic Garfield manages with wit and style. More announcements come via video statements from the leader of the World Council, as well as a couple of documentary-style summations of the state of play.
The action is carefully plotted. After the interval—during which time the audience representatives from rival regions sound each other out in the pub downstairs—comes the allocation of resources, with vehement arguing and many entrenched positions. This part raises the hardest moral questions: do you act solely in the interest of your region, or to help the country as a whole?
Early Days is a cleverly conceived, neatly orchestrated production in which the audience plays the lead characters. It could have all fallen flat, but it seems that the audience on each night is willingly complicit in the fiction, playing out their parts and acting the fantasy as if the decisions were real. Sometimes, the shouting means that individual voices can’t be heard; an appointed moderator, akin to the Speaker in parliament, would have made a big difference. And while some debates felt rather drawn out, each actual decision became somewhat rushed. It’s difficult to control the pacing when the audience has the bit between its teeth, but a tighter hand on the reins would have made for a more satisfying evening.
In the run-up to the election, when politics is the top of every news agenda, the opportunity to play the representative of your region makes the whole process that much more real and more compelling.