‘Total agreement is the end of thought’
The Majority at the National Theatre probes modern political activism.
‘Wouldn’t it be nicer if everyone agreed?’, asks playwright Rob Drummond at the beginning of his play The Majority. He is telling the audience why he decided not to vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum. This is the jumping-off point for Drummond’s first foray into political theatre.
The play is part one-man-storytelling, part gameshow. It hinges on Drummond’s personal story of a chance encounter with a political activist, Eric Ferguson, during the protests after the Scottish referendum. Through his unlikely friendship with Ferguson – a left-wing activist who believes his small village in the highlands is overrun with neo-Nazis – Drummond starts to become more political.
The interactive element comes via electronic voting devices, which are issued to all audience members before the show begins. The play is punctuated with statements that the audience must vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on, which flash up on multiple screens around the stage. Some votes actively affect the play’s outcome or the audience itself (latecomers were only allowed in because the majority voted to let them in).
The voting is accompanied by gameshow-style music while a tick-tock-ing light effect on the stage floor acts as a timer. The audience sits on all sides of the stage, and Drummond talks directly to us, adding to the gameshow feel.
Drummond’s political journey is entertaining and often ridiculous, allowing for some genuinely funny moments, such as finding himself outside a councillor’s house in the dead of night, trying to persuade his mad friend not to push a parcel of live bees through the letterbox.
And there are some thought-provoking moments, too, such as the climax of Drummond’s attempts at political activism, when he is arrested for punching a neo-Nazi in the face on the way home from a day of protesting. He is charged and receives a six-month suspended sentence. He then describes his internal moral battle, alternating between feeling good about the punch and feeling regret.
This tussle is reflected in his frequent returns to variations on a moral question that he asks the audience to vote on it: ‘A train is speeding towards five railway workers. If you pull a lever the train will change tracks to where there is only one railway worker. Do you pull the lever?’ In some scenarios the lone person is your child; in another the five workers are neo-Nazis.
However, as the performance goes on, the repetitiveness of the questioning starts to grate, as does the enforced intensity of these moments, created through suspenseful music, near darkness, and a close-up of Drummond’s face on the hexagonal screens hanging over the stage.
Drummond says the play is about democracy. But it isn’t really. It’s more the story of one man’s journey into political engagement. This doesn’t mean it isn’t entertaining. Drummond is a gifted and gripping storyteller, but the interactive element of the show is more of an aid to the moral message than a real comment on democracy.
Drummond touches briefly on Brexit — and unsurprisingly, only eight per cent of the National Theatre audience said we should leave the EU. He also talks about the election of Donald Trump. But he doesn’t dwell on these topics, and there is no real questioning of what democracy means or what its merits or pitfalls might be.
Where Drummond offers his most interesting insight is through his own actions as a political activist and his reflections on them afterwards. With Eric as his mentor, Drummond enters into the world of clicktivism, ‘shouting’ abuse at those he disagrees with on Twitter; writes ‘Nazi scum’ on the driveway of a councillor who voted against immigration; and chants ‘right[-wing] is wrong’ on a counter-protest against anti-immigration demonstrators.
It is his mother – outed as ‘a Tory’ by Drummond – who provides the voice of wisdom, asking him, ‘What does being wrong feel like?’, and forcing him to realise it’s ‘exactly the same as being right’. The realisation is pivotal for Drummond and brings him to his conclusion that disagreeing isn’t the problem — it’s learning how to disagree. Simply calling someone you disagree with a ‘bigot’ or a ‘racist’ is not going to win the argument, he says.
While The Majority doesn’t have anything particularly groundbreaking to say when it comes to the world of politics or the question of democracy, it does provide an entertaining snapshot of the often insane world of political activism. The result is a timely comment on the shallowness of much of today’s political activism.
Drummond clearly has his doubts about being politically engaged, but his final message is overtly pro-politics and pro-debate. ‘Total agreement is the end of conversation. It is the end of thought’, he says. Absolutely.
Naomi Firsht is staff writer at spiked and co-author of The Parisians’ Guide to Cafés, Bars and Restaurants. Follow her on Twitter: @Naomi_theFirsht
The Majority is on at Dorfman Theatre until 28 August.