Review: The Drill (Battersea Arts Centre)

Breach Theatre’s third show looks into how we rehearse for terror attacks

Amarnah Amuludun and Ellice Stevens in The Drill
Amarnah Amuludun and Ellice Stevens in The Drill
© Dorothy Allen Pickard

"Terrorists don’t think like army generals," wrote Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari two years ago. "They think like theatre producers." It’s true. Terrorism makes a spectacle of violence; one intended for an audience rather than aimed at its victims. To combat terrorism, he advises, we should think likewise. "If we want to fight terrorism effectively we must realise that the terrorists can do nothing to defeat us."

Breach Theatre would doubtless agree. The Drill, their third show, critiques the way we rehearse for terror attacks – and what are emergency drills if not rehearsals? By replicating the conditions of a dangerous scenario, we ready ourselves for the eventual reality; to perform on the day, if you prefer. It’s how first aid training works. But The Drill asks whether, when it comes to terrorism, training might do more harm than good. It is, after all, another spectacle of violence. Do preparations ease our paranoia or enhance it? Which comes first: the chicken or the threat?

Submitting themselves to a series of genuine training courses, Breach’s three actors learned how to evade and disarm gunmen and to identify explosive devices. Judging from their onstage demonstrations, tackling one another onto a crash mat and swiping fake guns out of each other’s hands, they’ve developed an armoury of self-defence skills.

But what price security – or the sensation of it? Dorothy Allen-Pickard’s glossy videos show actors stalking their rehearsal room with mock automatic weapons and combing the toilets for replica pipe bombs. If we change our behaviour, have we given in? And must we think like terrorists to get the better of them? In interviews, each (male) course leader stresses the importance of credibility. Without it, such exercises become futile. "If the training’s not realistic," one explains, "people don’t have the fear." It’s a twist on that old Blanche DuBois line: "I don’t want realism, I want panic."

By stressing that simulations are themselves real – certainly in the emotions they generate – Breach allow our scepticism to simmer. Interviewing volunteer 'victims' employed for emergency service exercises, they prove performance lingers on. One replicates the symptoms of real shock; another struggles to shake off each job after work.

Likewise, The Drill toys with its own artifice. Eliding fact into fiction, Breach’s performers deliver scripted first-person monologues that may or may not be true. Each reflects another kind of risk or a real fear: Luke Lampard recounts a Grindr hook-up that goes awry, while Ellice Stevens frets about drifting into marriage, motherhood and materialism. It’s like Simon Stephens' Pornography spliced with a devised documentary and if that implicates art, Amarnah Amuludun’s story squirms at a city that seems increasingly staged. Billy Barrett’s savvy direction glitches so that you can’t tell what’s acting and what’s not.

The Drill is a thinker’s show, not one you feel, and Breach can’t always translate a fascinating process into transfixing performance, but they get your mind whirring at full speed with tangents about racist assumptions, profitable paranoia and a sculpted, air-brushed and gentrified society. Bit by bit, The Drill bores into your brain.

The Drill runs at Battersea Arts Centre until 17 February, then tours nationwide.