December 22, 2013 9:01 pm

Protest Song, The Shed, National Theatre, London – review

Rhys Ifans is poignant and charismatic in this politically-charged monologue
Rhys Ifans in ‘Protest Song’©Kwame Lestrade

Rhys Ifans in ‘Protest Song’

The protest song within Tim Price’s monologue is an adaptation of the “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Danny, a “rough sleeper” played by Rhys Ifans, has adjusted the lines so that “two turtle doves” are “two racist cops”, “seven swans-a-swimming” are “seven drones bombing” and “five gold rings” is “Boris is a [word this paper does not print]” – “Boris” refers to Boris Johnson, London’s mayor. Danny’s other targets include bankers and The Evening Standard. He persuades the audience to sing as well.

What does this amount to? Nightly political protests in the middle-class arena of London’s National Theatre. And a certain silliness.


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Price is finding himself as a political playwright. Last year he wrote about the whistleblower Chelsea Manning and won a prize; now he is chewing over the Occupy protests of 2011-12. The structure is simple. A homeless man shuffles into view on his way to an appointment that will get him a home in time for Christmas. He pauses, begs for some change and reveals what he did during London’s version of Occupy – how Occupy gave him hope, and took that hope away. He misses his appointment and smashes the place up in despair.

This is not eviscerating political drama in the vein of Brecht or Peter Weiss, but it’s well plotted and increasingly affecting. Our first impression of Danny is a typical “tramp” – a muttering wretch, best to be avoided. In the course of 70 minutes, the stereotype is peeled away. He is wretched, yes – and witty, lonely, decent too. “Look at me,” he says. “Look at me.”

Ifans’ performance is poignant and charismatic; you detect the hidden charmer behind the grime. And he’s wonderfully volatile, screaming in the faces of the front row, “Who do you think you are?” We are meant to feel unsettled and we do.

Calling the mayor names might not be cutting, but it’s oddly exciting to sing with Danny. (You hope that Johnson might pop in and declare the National closed.) And the main point in Protest Song – that injustice ought to be discussed – is made persuasively. Press night was packed with well-wishers and Ifans won the argument. Later in the run, I hope other people walk out mid-show – in protest. Then Price will have done his work.

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