Avoidable Climbing blends singing, political parable and participatory performance in an underwhelming discussion of current politics. The title parodies Bertolt Brecht’s retelling of Hitler’s ascension, The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and embraces its central interrogation: how do we prevent the coming to power of demagogues? This is a premise I am on board with, but one that the production does not fully carry out.
As we enter the room, the two protagonists Dave and Isobel are tuning their instruments, a guitar and an accordion, and chatting with the audience. At the back of the room, plastic mannequins are standing naked except for tiny bits of black tape on their faces, turning them all into Hitler-lookalikes. The studio is a mess – the floor is covered in flags, and props and costumes are displayed all round, announcing the constant comings and goings between reality and theatrical illusion that characterise the production.
We are quickly guided through some key historical moments when ‘charismatic leaders’ and dictators have found their way to power. The performance spans Europe, America, and Asia, the 20th and 21st centuries, starting with the fatidic coming to power of the National Socialist Party, and ending with the recent American elections, seen through the eyes of Donald Trump’s supporters. There is also room for some funny moments, including a Youtube-style tutorial on how to be a dictator, and a final hymn to grassroots activism. However, by the time we get to this call to action, the play’s constant self-interruptions, as the performers go in and out of character, have diluted the urgency of the performance, as does the range of political situations and issues that Avoidable Climbing attempts to mix together.
Dave and Isobel frequently call on members of the audience to take part in the act – with mixed results, as volunteers are shy to come on stage. We are invited to read out several tweets that depict acts of violence and racism. In another scene, as a spectator is holding an hourglass to time them, Dave and Isobel read all the decisions made by the new American administration out loud, while inflating orange balloons. It is hard to say if we are meant to feel angry, confused, or both. Trying to give voice to a sense of anxiety and impotence, Avoidable Climbing emerges from honest indignation and a desire for change, but it fails to bring this energy to the stage, and thwarts it instead by giving too much space to meta-theatrical in-jokes that sit very awkwardly in the middle of discussions on populism and xenophobia. There is just too much to look at.
Politics has a way of bringing attention to its own theatricality and capacity for unexpected turns of events. It sometimes seems like this production is following the same path, at the risk of distracting us from its central concerns. The result is often more chaotic than informative.