By Florence Okoye
It’s not everyday you get invited to see a new show in Liverpool but one of the things I’ve learned since starting MancsterCon is that it’s surprising how often the not everyday occurs.
Panic Lab, a performing arts company, known for their fusion of contemporary dance, theatre and performance, were putting on a show called R.I.O.T., described as a comic book come to life with a dash of political commentary thrown in. Excited, I wasn’t ever likely to refuse and so once the tedious bit of organising my schedule had been done, I was all set for an evening about which I had absolutely no idea would turn out.
I arrived at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool (way too early as usual) that Thursday evening, with my cases packed for an overnight stay at a cheap hotel. The theatre folk were quietly welcoming and very helpful pointing me to the bar and the entrance to the theatre space itself. Having never been in the theatre before, I found myself totally in love, but then I have always been a sucker for 19th century architecture with modernist interiors.
Once I’d taken my seat, I couldn’t help but notice some of my fellow audience members. My people! I thought, at the sight of cosplayers in the front row. Meanwhile, the crisp tones of an announcer overhead informed us of the latest news in this hybrid world of comics based urban fantasy, where Bruce Wayne is reported to have donated millions to the Republican party, Apple has put Stark Enterprise out of business with the latest iArmour and Captain Britain has made a public statement announcing his concerns about immigration and his anti-Scottish independence views. On the plus side, Storm has returned to Africa (a country would have been nice, but I digress…) to carry on the fight against the impact of climate change, whilst Mystique is now well known as a pro-Trans Rights activist. I’m liking this already, I thought, having always been a fan of a bit of meta with my comics analysis.
The story began with an introduction to our hero, Captain Patriot, his sidekick, his nemeses and ultimately his origins, which included him starting out as a young comic book devotee, growing up to join a secret superheroes organisation with his best friend. Already, however, there was trouble in the ranks, as our villainesses were determined to bring up the ridiculousness of their proposed costumes (though perhaps they should be grateful they weren’t drawn by Rob Liefield, otherwise ludicrously high heels might have been the least of their problems) and their objectifying tagnames. Of course, Captain Patriot, who seemed to have designated himself as supreme narrator, was to have none of that, firmly putting the protesting characters in their place.
What followed was a wonderfully intricate story of mixed identities, forced amnesia and replaced memories, metaphors for the power of the narratives so often expressed in comic books and genre fiction, where a good whose simplified aesthetics are redolent of wartime propaganda posters, triumphs over evil which never seems so much evil as just uppity and annoying to the status quo; where the minority and the female are depicted as exotic (or glamorising) but inherently untrustworthy and likely to be seduced with promises of gaining equality and empowerment by betraying the hero (a la Angel in X-Men First Class); or conversely utterly trusting in the powers of their white male cis-gendered captains who hector and lead them to battle and usually to their hastened fridging.
As a WWE and MMA fan, I ought to express my complete admiration for the sheer high-paced non-stop athleticism on display, much of the choreography combining a deadly accuracy with balletic finesse. Not for a moment did I feel the performers were tiring or saving themselves for the final ending[s]. Each and every one of them seemed to be totally immersing themselves in their characters and performances. Yet, for all the leaping and fighting, there were also some moments of pure comedy – I don’t think the manly growls of Johnny Cash’s, ‘Jesus I don’t wanna die alone’ have ever been funnier and lines like “turning heroin to heroism,” as well as being rather quaint from our cynical post-modern perspective, demonstrate a deep understanding of and familiarity with the rhythms of pulp comic writing, that peculiar mix of pseudo-mythic narrative and pop-culture jingles.
In fact, what impressed me the most about the show was how the whole performance, from the storylines, the writing, the action (some poses taken straight from Famous 4 comic panels) to the artwork and use of props, lived and breathed comics, paying an homage that was both fun and deadly serious, the kind which the likes of Alan Moore make seem all too easy. As a lady blerd (that’s the latest ‘in’ term for black nerd, fyi), all too familiar with the social erasure of black, female, gay and trans creators, lines like “old memories die off and new ones become Truth if you let them,” rang with a disturbing clarity. The recurring themes that our stories and experiences are often interpreted and understood through the lens of accepted social narratives and the manner in which the powerful can get away with rebranding even the very terms used by those less privileged to define and protect themselves are incredibly important in this time of widespread social change and, on a smaller scale, when the world of comics and genre fiction on the whole is rapidly responding to ever growing critiques – always there and always vocal (contra to some) but amplified through the power of the internet and social media.
Speaking of critiques, I will say that I found the ending a little overdrawn, which is probably because there were several of them (though perhaps that in itself was a critique of contemporary genre Epics like Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and their never ending endings? Maybe). In many ways, the beginning of the play seemed almost to be trying to hold off the ensuing plot, but I think that is always the danger when trying to set the scene and introduce multiple characters. Frankly, the high energy of the remaining show more than made up for that and although initially I couldn’t help wondering if the disjointedness between the initial set-up and the later-revealed plot lines was too marked, as if they were written as almost different plays, now looking back, I think it works in R.I.O.T.’s favour, setting the audience up for a more familiar sort of bildungsromanesque narrative only to be sucker-punched by the brutal reality of the story being told.
The show ended to well deserved applause and later I headed back to the bar to meet with the creators and congratulate them on a truly amazing show. It has to be said, they all looked thoroughly drained but were still polite enough to keep smiling in the face of my no doubt rather garbled repetitive expressions of praise. One of the things I was most intrigued to discover was just how organic the piece was, the way it had already evolved substantially to become the performance I’d watched, and how it would probably change by the time of their next show in London – an enticement to be sure. It’s always fun for someone like myself who enjoys theory of theatre to see the theoretical being expressed in performance. Perhaps Brechtian isn’t quite the word to describe it, but understanding the creative methodology adds a whole new layer to an already multi-channeled stage-performance of an equally complex storyline.
Overall I very much enjoyed R.I.O.T. I thought it was excellent and a lot of fun, with plenty to chew on for the more meta-inclined amongst the audience. Once again, props must go the performers for some feats of flexibility and agility that were of a very high standard, simultaneously balancing and exhibiting the skills of the respective artistes.
Many thanks to Clara, the Producer who invited me. It would be wonderful to see the show again in its later form and I wish the team all the best as they tour round the country.
Florence Okoye is Events and Marketing Manager for MancsterCon and one of its co-founders. She likes all things Steampunk and as you can probably tell, is more than a bit pretentious.