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Review: #WeAreArrested and Day of the Living (Mischief Festival, The Other Place)

The Mischief Festival returns to The Other Place this spring with a double bill of new plays

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Jamie Cameron and Peter Hamilton Dyer in #WeAreArrested
(© Ellie Merridale © RSC)

Mischief might not cut it any more. When governments turn their back on free speech, do we have an obligation, as citizens, to make nuisances of ourselves? That's one of the questions beneath this tightly twinned double bill – the latest instalment of the RSC's annual offering of new work – which troubles at the rising tide of authoritarianism that's doubling down on dissent worldwide.

#WeAreArrested makes the point sharply. Adapted from the memoirs of Turkish journalist Can Dündar, imprisoned for 92 days after publishing pictures of Turkish soldiers smuggling weapons to Islamic State in Syria, Pippa Hill and Sophie Ivatts' playtext tweaks the language to slyly open his case out. Peter Hamilton Dyer's Dündar, the spit of Alan Rusbridger in glasses and crumpled blazer, talks of hung parliaments and snap elections, of anonymous presidents and the need to "overcome". The implication is clear: this could happen anywhere, is happening everywhere. There's no brushing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's clampdown on free speech – 250 journalists in Turkish jails as of January this year – as a problem of elsewhere.

Dündar's story starts like a thriller, its pulse racing like a Bourne film as the editor and his deputy Erdem Gül (Jamie Cameron) await a police raid on their publication. You can hear the crack of fear in Hamilton Dyer's voice, as this middle-class professional abandons life's comfort to catch a plane out of his country. Uncertainty and urgency jostle for headspace, as he seeks solace in George Orwell: "In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act."

Day of the Living
Ellie Merridale © RSC

But Ivatts' staging blossoms into something more philosophical when Dündar's confined to a solitary cell, clinging to sanity. Prison meals transform, in his mind, into princely brunches, stage trickery turning water into coffee and toast into pastries. His neighbours hurl gifts over the walls, including a cheese toastie warmed by radiator, and he squeezes ink from oranges to combat a colourless existence. There's a strange freedom in solitary confinement – as there is under authoritarian rule – but accepting it as such is a kind of defeat.

Day of the Living offers a similar juxtaposition: it fights via fiesta. In These Trees Are Made of Blood, Darren Clark and Amy Draper turned Argentina's torturous totalitarianism into a camp cabaret. They repeat the trick here, using Mexican music and carnival spirit to tell the sombre story of 43 students 'disappeared' by a pack of unmarked, government gunmen.

But where These Trees… flashed a sardonic smile of defiance, Day of the Living is melancholic to the point of defeatism. There's a news story here, but Draper and writer Juliet Gilkes Romero aren't sure how to tell it onstage. Detached voices recount the students' experiences of the affray – the issue being we can only guess what they went through – while a masked dumbshow follows a family refusing to give up on a disappeared son. It's a dead end: the narrative can only sit with their ongoing, open-ended grief, and the cartoonish masks risk cutesifying the horror of a corrupt regime and a lawless state. Clark's songs have spirit – one trills about severed heads in the street, "not normal, but not not normal" – but the show never finds the tale's sting.