Rhum and Clay's Project Dictator at New Diorama Theatre – review

The world premiere production continues its run until 30 April

Rhum and Clay's Project Dictator
Rhum and Clay's Project Dictator
© Cesare De Giglio

Seldom have I seen a show that so shatteringly deviates from the expectations it sets up for its audience at the outset as Rhum and Clay's newest devised piece. It kicks off with composer Khaled Kurbeh at a keyboard playing blandly inoffensive muzak as the audience files in, before a smoothly deadpan voice announces that the performance will last 4 hours 37 minutes with no interval.

Co-creators and (with Hamish Macdougall) co-directors Matt Wells and Julian Spooner duly bound on as, respectively, strait-laced Martin, author and star of the play we are about to see, and put-upon nice guy Jeremy, who will be general dogsbody doing everything else (we know this as it says so on the back of his boilersuit). So far, so obviously funny: the gentle ribbing of Kurbeh as well as a couple of audience members, the fractious relationship between the two men, and Jeremy's jokey questioning of Martin's authority, suggest a politicised version of National Theatre of Brent or, more currently, The Pin. Props fly around, there's a bit of genuinely witty invention, all three performers are crankily likeable…it's a very agreeable, gently satiric bit of nonsense.

Vague unease sets in amongst the merriment when some staged violence, half-lit and spurred on by audience hysteria, goes on that little bit too long, but we are soon back to knockabout comedy, albeit with an uncomfortable new edge. The power has shifted between the two men, mainly through Jeremy directly appealing to the audience for support in jettisoning Martin's sober-sided political script in favour of something more "fun". Spooner is so adorable and energetic it's hard not to get swept along, at least at first. What follows gets darker and darker, yet perversely, funnier and funnier, with the creeping realisation that this is pretty much how populism works; Putin is obliquely referenced at one point.

The second half is even more unsettling and infinitely sadder. It's disconcertingly beautiful at times… and almost entirely wordless. Wells and Spooner appear as unwilling clowns, complete with skull caps, white face make-up, red noses, and giant ruffled collars, taking their instructions from a stern disembodied voice commanding them not to deviate from the script which has been hurled down from the flies. An LED display demands audience applause at the end of each increasingly desperate clowning sequence, and that clapping starts to feel more and more like collusion, but not with the terrified performers in front of us.

This is shape-shifting, thought-provoking theatre that interrogates the world we live in, how artists fit into that, and what price we pay for choosing the easier options. It's surprising, disturbing, and, at its conclusion, desperately moving. Wells and Spooner are vivid, athletic and sensational, and Kurbeh is a haunting presence, musically and physically.

Project Dictator is created in conjunction with thirteen international theatre artists who, to protect their safety, remain anonymous. Aside from the sheer brilliance of Rhum and Clay, it is undoubtedly these artists' contributions that give the show its unique urgency, authenticity and lack of self indulgence as it examines coercion and the consequences of what happens when effective communication ceases.

On a lighter note, it lasts a mere 75 minutes rather than the four hours plus we are threatened with. I can guarantee though that you will be processing it for much, much longer than that. Essential.