What we’re watching. Watching? Watching only tells a miniscule part of the story. This is total immersive theatre. Like Donnie Brasco, you might never come out!
I purposely read as little as I could about Blast Theory and Hydrocracker’s co-creation Operation Black Antler, other than I would be invited to take the role of an undercover cop. After meeting with my fellow ‘audience’ members (only seven of us), in the middle of Manchester, we received a text to rendezvous at a nearby Safe House.
Met there by an agitated Detective Sergeant Mitchell (Olwen May), and ‘deep swimmer’ cop Watts (Jamie Samuel) we are juiced in on the undercover operation. A seemingly innocent fundraiser is being held at a local spit and sawdust pub, but known POIs (Persons of Interest) are in attendance. They are all known members of an emerging far-right protest group, something is going down, and we have to find out what we can.
The rules of engagement are explained, we need false names and back stories, and we are pared off into two units and sent on our way! This section of the piece is definitely designed to make us feel uncomfortable, as we are broken up from our friends, given a lot of info in a hurry and frog marched round a rabbit warren-like disused taxi rank. It certainly gets the heart-pumping and sets the mood as we hurry over the canal to the pub!
I am often despairing of fringe theatre productions, where the actors on the stage outnumber the bums on the seats watching the show. Well, here the situation is the same, and it is brilliant! The pub is awash with welcoming, chavvy characters of all ages, having the sort of working class knees up you might see on a Channel 5 benefit-porn documentary. Talk about immersion. You cannot move for them, as we squeeze through the revellers to the bar, the dart board and the pool table.
All but two of the seventeen actors in this section are in the programme as community cast, including both of our POIs (Amyn Ali and Wesley McGillan). Having done community cast gigs myself, I know that these guys will be earning about £5 expenses a night, and probably all have been doing ‘proper’ jobs during the day before coming to perform. I have to say they were all absolutely brilliant and believable (including a former Laugh and Let Die collaborator, Sean Fitton), and all subtly tried to get us to blow our cover. As soon as we walked in, the girl who the benefit was being held for (Catherine Morefield) asked one of my unit and I how we got here. In complete unison, we chirruped ‘Bus’ and, ‘Taxi’! The same unit member shouted, ‘Come on, Rob’, when Tim was playing pool. A jarring reminder of how one false move can drop you in it!
We buddy up to our POI, and as we have been told, try to coax his abhorrent racist views out of him, pretending we harbour them as well. It is not difficult, considering recent incidents in Manchester (the bombing of the Arena, and an EDL march two days before).
I have read many reviews since partaking in the show, that were at pains to state how unclean and disgusting they felt at pretending to be a fascist. When the event first aired in Brighton, there was widespread criticism at the marketing focusing on this aspect. I am as lefty and as liberal as the next man, but to these people I point out one word. PRETENDING. It’s just acting, darling. Henry Cavill can’t fly, Daniel Radcliffe can’t make himself invisible, and neither performer nor audience member in Black Antler has to be racist. I’ve heard some commentators say that they could not have brought themselves to do it. Well, you’d have wasted your money then, wouldn’t you!
And just to add to that, I think the cast were particularly careful not to go overboard. I didn’t hear the P-word once. Most of the ire was reserved for the sort of things you’d hear in a UKIP manifesto. One character (Chris Grixti) was bemoaning the fact he hadn’t been able to get a doctor’s appointment for his poorly daughter. It didn’t get too much worse than that.
I was honing in on trying to complete our mission and get the intel out of our mark, but I’d have loved to have spent more time working the room and talking to the rest of the throng. I imagine a few of them will have worked out intricate back stories, and never get to spill them.
We were eventually invited to a pow wow with the big cheese, and then hoiked out by text message. Then, moved to a separate location, we met with another deep swimming copper, Swift, and eagerly shared our wares. It was a mixed result. We had been offered a job that could perhaps entrap some of the baddies, but realised the plan would unravel as we had arranged to meet them in a pub that didn’t exist! Another reminder that our espionage careers might not take off!
A lot of the talk around this show, generated by the creators for the most part, is around the fairness of Police Surveillance, and questions the ethics of the behaviour displayed in many recent cases that have hit the headlines. It is here that Swift (Niki Woods) urges us to consider this point. Is there sufficient evidence to continue this investigation? There probably isn’t, but we tell them to get on with it anyway.
As we finish the performance (and I do mean ‘We’!), a text invites us back to Home for a debrief where we can mingle with the creators and eventually, the actors. It has raised a lot of discussion points. The worrying rise of far-right extremist groups, the corruption of police power, and slightly less importantly, could my unit remember our back story under pressure…
Exhilarating and real, Operation Black Antler is a unique experience, a thought-provoking piece of escapism. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea (a code 99, according to Mitchell), and not for shrinking wall flowers. But, a rarity for theatre-goers; the more effort you put in, the more you will get out.
Operation Black Antler plays till the end of the week, through Home, Manchester.