Critical Mass

Forty politicians gather together for a summit meeting to discuss – well, to discuss everything – climate change, terrorism, ID cards, transport, energy sources, food, health, schools, nuclear deterrents, arts funding, …… – the future of the world.

An extremely formal occasion. Speeches are made, the kind of speeches that pretend to a moral standpoint, but are actually based on nothing but the desire to stay in power. Important decisions are made. Allegiances are sworn. Votes are taken.

These speeches are reduced to a few sentences, and not necessarily coherent ones at that. As the audience, we get a sense of what is being said, without actually hearing it explicitly.

Which is all very well except that……..

There is a subversive element to the meeting, a human, informal, anarchic, nostalgic, ungovernable element. The delegates keep breaking out into songs, specifically folk songs – songs of protest, love songs, nursery rhymes, lullabies, songs about going to war, songs about coming back from war, songs about hardship, celebratory songs…..

A tedious speech about arts funding is subverted by an exuberant version of Mary Mac.

Two people on opposite sides of the chamber sing a love song to one another, while the rest of the delegates quietly write notes.

Multi-culti discussions are interrupted by a frenzied expression of Jewish belief, Echad Mi Yodeiya.

A speech about the evils of racism. The tea lady arrives. She is black. She sings the inspirational gospel song Hold On, which morphs strangely into a perky Cameroonian marching ditty Cassez la Jambe. It’s like the mid-conference piss-up.

During a series of speeches about the necessity of war in Iraq, some of the delegates start to sing the Horst Wessel Song. The others try to stop them; some sing the Red Flag, some Rule Britannia, some try to restrain them physically. Chaos.

A gorgeous Gaelic lament Griogal Cridhe for a dead husband.

The delegates fall asleep, singing an Albanian lullaby Nano Nino.

And, in a dream, a group of suffragettes appears. An almost inaudible version of Jerusalem.

A speech about climate change is underlaid with an obsessive Bulgarian rain song. The delegates carry their seats above the heads and pile them up at the back of the stage.

Always a tension between the abstract, detached, privileged speech-making on the one hand, and the concrete, emotional, egalitarian singing on the other.

And a tension between a vision of the future and a yearning for the past.

The piece ends with the delegates quietly singing the German folk song ‘Alles istverganglich’ – everything is transitory.

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