Rhum and Clay’s Project Dictator – commissioned by the New Diorama Theatre – feels like two shows rolled into one, though tragically, not in a good way. The clown show about the dangers of totalitarianism succeeds in exploring a serious subject matter with intelligent comedy, but so starkly different – and poorly woven together – are both parts of the play that one coherent argument fails to shine through.
I would have been satisfied with the first half of the production, as well, if that was all it was. Your typical politician Tobias, played by Matt Wells and described as “Emmanuel Macron meets Jesus Chris”, reassures us that he is equipped with the knowledge of “how to solve the problem(s)” – at last. Unfortunately his co-star Jeremy (Julian Spooner) is a bit tired of playing ‘everyone else’ in the play and soon dreams of things bigger and better. And despite Tobias’ best efforts to literally fight back against the dictatorial political ideology Jeremy represents, he soon seizes control of the show with a military uniform and a gaffer tape moustache to boot.
He wins us over with his Spotify playlist, his desire to be drawn by a member of the audience (who, it must be said, did an incredible job of illustrating the political leader as he darted around on stage), fancy display screens and lobbing several inflatable balloons into the crowd.
It’s so hilariously silly, and I got the meaning behind it all for the first half, at least: totalitarianism feeds on the fatigue of an electorate tired of empty words and hopeful of a politician who’s more reactionary in nature, populist and comedic. We laugh along as the dark politics creeps in and we’re yet to understand the sheer gravity of the mess in which we find ourselves. The subtle distraction tactics feel less discreet and novel in the latest political climate where Project Dictator‘s initial argument has been made before, but it’s executed in a brilliant and ridiculous fashion.
What a shame, then, that that all disappears with a sudden gear change halfway through, when the curtain falls but we can see the pair unwind. We learn the duo have been instructed to put on actual clown costumes at the request of an anonymous individual barking commands through a small speaker in the on-stage dressing room. They must continue performing the same routine over and over – perhaps a nod to the aforementioned distraction tactics adopted by totalitarian governments. A clever point well made if the transition wasn’t so abrupt, and the duo could have perhaps worn the same costume throughout, to make the distinction all clear.
Instead, we’re treated to actual clowning as the pair act out several mime sequences with red noses and white costumes. Unlike the first half of Project Dictator, the commentary isn’t so clear cut as it storms towards its conclusion. Is it about the death of art under dictatorships? Maybe. The sanitation and censorship of performing arts and the topics they discuss in their scripts by some higher power? Possibly.
How this relates to what came before with Jeremy taking control in utterly chaotic scenes soundtracked by Khaled Kurbeh’s silly score, I have no idea. Bafflement and bewilderment only get you so far in comedy, and it could have done with a bit more uniformity – quite literally, in fact.
If they had to wear the clown costumes at the start while Jeremy took control, then Project Dictator‘s central narrative could have been that this is all because of the demands of some anonymous dictator. The connection would have been more distinct. Instead, the gear change and difference in pace is jarring – we also have to do a lot of waiting as the pair sort themselves out behind a silver curtain. If Fringe shows had intervals, this show could well have benefitted from one – in terms of both pacing and practicality.
The tiredness we have towards politicians with empty words is playfully exploited to brilliant comedic effect in Project Dictator – at least for the first half. How frustrating, then, that a whole new fatigue creeps in for the rest.
Project Dictator is now playing at the Pleasance Courtyard, as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2022, until 27 August.
Production Images: Cesare Di Giglio.