By Danielle Farrow
In 1809, the prior theatre having burnt down the previous year, the new Covent Garden Theatre, under the management of John Philip Kemble, funded by patrons, investors and then new prices was opened with the production that had been playing on the night of the fire: Macbeth, with highly acclaimed actors Kemble himself and his sister Sarah Siddons. The theatre had been ten months in the building and was a magnificent creation, but ticket prices had not been raised in a century, Kemble had not insured the old building and, from the opening night, protests in the theatre about the public paying for such a mistake disturbed every performance for months and became known as the Old Price riots.
Zincbar Performing Arts makes all this clear in Kemble’s Riot and presents the ordinary theatre punter, excitedly loving the colour that theatre brings to their lives, eager to either embrace the celebrities they watch wholeheartedly, or question their behaviour while sucking up the entertainment they offer. Following two actors as audience members, the audience is divided, at first by where they are seated, between those just wanting to enjoy the play and those calling vociferously for the old prices back.
The delight of the production is the audience participation: there are chants, and stompings and wonderful moments of people spontaneously yelling out such gems as “you should be on the stage” and the succinct but heartfelt “shut up!”. One audience member chose early on to switch to the old price side and there was a real feeling of people caring about the theatre and the price question: the need for funds in order to produce the theatre that was wanted and the notion of affordable theatre as an unalienable right.
Kemble, in sombre Georgian attire, comes across as a stubborn character, secure in his belief that he is right, and passionate about his theatre and what he perceives to be his work: opening the eyes, minds and hearts of the audience to more than their normal petty concerns. Siddons is not so strongly drawn (and rather badly costumed), more a cipher to echo a few considerations for the public and to voice the performer’s need for the love and recognition of an audience. The Shakespeare sections are well played by Kemble, with a certain old-world grandiosity (though both actors break up the verse line in a manner highly unlikely for that period), but the conversations ‘backstage’ between the siblings smacks of awkward devised dialogue, with information about their past shoe-horned in with phrases such as “cast your mind back” and “do you remember“. This sits oddly with Kemble’s often too flowery language, a combination that makes the script disappointing.
Kemble’s Riot works well, though, as an interactive experience. It touches on questions of celebrity culture, combined power, use of force, another’s will being imposed on yours and it definitely involves its audience. There are moments of great improvisation from actors and watchers caught up in the proceedings. Paradoxically, Kemble’s Riot can make you feel empowered whilst being strongly manipulated – thought-provoking indeed.
And, as this audience planned it, box offices across the Fringe had better be prepared to hear calls for old prices!