This is a story for you, my son
A song for you to learn and sing
The story of kingdoms lost then won
And here is where we must begin
So starts the Song of Riots, the latest collaboration from Awake Projects, currently running at the North Wall Arts Centre. Bringing together dance, music, acting, and video projection, the multimedia collaboration tells the story of two young men growing up in parallel worlds: inner city London, and the forests of the fairytale Iron Hans. This is a poignant coming of age story, a far remove from the happy ending of the rendition recorded by the Brothers Grimm. Director Christopher Sivertsen notes that the impetus behind Song of Riots came from ‘wanting to understand the conflicts that lie within young men’ as they undergo the rites of passage towards maturity. Although a lack of subtlety undermined the success of this production in parts, it presented a thoughtful exploration of moving into adulthood.
The forests of fairy tales have been seen to represent a psychological wilderness: a place to be both lost and found, with shadows that terrify, and shade that comforts. In Song of Riots they find a surprisingly convincing counterpart in the streets of London, aided by Matt Smith’s kaleidoscopic projections. The fairy tale setting was more convincing overall than its London equivalent, due in part to the characterisation of the two young men around which the story revolves. The Prince (Jason Callender) was portrayed sensitively, with nuance and moments that emphasised that he is in a transitional phase of life. Despite wanting to be treated as an adult, he pleads with his mother to be allowed out to play, acting petulantly when he can not get his own way. The writing for Lucasz (Christopher Finnegan) was unfortunately not as strong in the first half, devolving into shouting matches that bordered on a caricature of the machismo adolescent. However, this divide dissolved from the scene where their two worlds collide, Callender and Finnigan interacting convincingly and seeming to build a genuine rapport between the two of them.
Music is at the heart of this production, from the songs sung by the Queen (Maria Sendow) and Princess (Hanna Björck), to Lucasz’s rapping. Setting the entire play in free verse with musical accompaniment (think Sam Lee meets AFI meets Eminem meets Sheelanagig) was an inspired move, giving an energy and drive to the dialogue that matched the intensity of the choreography. For me the most striking scene in this regard was the one in which the King (Oliviero Papi) and Queen make love as the Prince decides to free the wild man, where the sinuous movements of the on-stage characters were beautifully matched by the incidental score. The male-only dance sequences were less compelling: although they captured the violent frustration of the men in question, they interrupted the fluidity that characterised the rest of the performance.
This is a play full of power-play and challenges to authority, portrayed in the dynamics between fathers and sons, men and women, Lucasz and his drug dealer and music producer. It is from these tense relationships that conflict arises, proving to be both a destructive and creative force. The words of poet William Blake underlie the script, particularly his Songs of Innocence and Experience, providing a conceptual thread for the boys’ development. Writer Lucy Maycock writes that she chose Blake because ‘His poems deal with what human beings could be if they weren’t fettered by society’s expectations or prejudices. I wanted the play to carry his spirit throughout.’ While Blake (and particularly this set of poems) is something of an obvious choice for the theme of rotes of passage, the parallel managed to avoid lapsing into triviality, thanks mostly to the staging and musical settings of his poetry. The familiar words of ‘The Tyger’, encouraging the Prince to move through adolescence by shaking of society’s “mind-forged manacles”, seemed to take on a new significance when sung and accompanied by dance.
Song of Riots’ greatest attribute is its merging of multiple media, mixing elements of storytelling, dance, theatre, music, and poetry to create a uniquely visceral production that defies easy categorisation. The musical framework provided structure for the entire play, blending the city and forest to create an entirely new landscape altogether. Although some moments were more convincing than others, there were standout performances from Sendow and Papi in particular, who were consistently enthralling as the King and Queen. Awake Projects’ multidisciplinary collaboration is, for the most part, powerful and effervescent, creating a poignant perspective on adolescence.