Croydonites Festival 2017 review: The Privileged

By - Friday 7th April, 2017

I didn’t enjoy it, but I wouldn’t have missed it

The Privileged by Jamal Harewood was performed at Theatre Utopia, Matthews Yard, as part of the Croydonites Festival of New Theatre, on Wednesday 29th March. It was quite something.

So here’s a review in two parts: first, some observations about the production, and then a very personal response. Head first – then heart.

In the head space

Jamal Harewood’s The Privileged is immersive theatre (a theme of this year’s Croydonites Festival). It involves an audience’s response to a man in a polar bear costume. We learn about the captive bear via sheets of instructions in numbered sequence, left in the room on chairs. It’s an undirected show. The watchers decide what happens; the bear responds.

So our group sticks to orderly sequence, reading the sheets aloud then starting to interact with the creature, which is friendly at first and nuzzles us amiably. We’re encouraged to play with it, teach it, feed it and give it water. Gradually comes the shift, in both how the bear is being interpreted for us, and also in how we are led to behave.

Doing as we are told, we end up stripping the bear, at which point we’re faced with a naked human being: an adult, black male. (I also learned a completely new fact: that polar bears have black skin and transparent fur which reflects light, giving a white appearance; they are therefore black and white at the same time). Instructed at first to feed the man/bear, we are then required to take the food away. By now angry and mystified, the bear becomes hostile and those who attempt to grab its pieces of chicken end up jumping back. By the end of the show, it’s curled in a corner, frightened and withdrawn.

It’s about our belief in our unquestioned right to dominate

Reviews of the show have stated that its theme is race: the ‘other-ing’ of black men and the negative identity assigned to them: unpredictable, hypersexual, menacing. These issues are very much present: Jamal Harewood’s choice of fried chicken to feed the bear deliberately draws on this racist stereotype. It’s surely broader than that, though. As Harewood shifts between human and animal identities, I find my thoughts in a jumble: colonialism, the industrial slaughter of cattle, the barbarity of the aquatic park, Seaworld, in Florida, depicted in the documentary BlackfishNazi Germany. Common to all is our will and belief in our right to dominate, and that such things have gone – some continue to go – unquestioned.

The Privileged also a remarkable piece of acting. It’s the essence of acting, in fact, which is to be present and then to react to others. Every performance is different as Harewood responds with no way to know what will happen. It’s simple yet subtle, complex and yet very direct. We’re all just put there to be, to see what we turn ourselves into.

In the personal space

Photo author’s own.

By the end of the show I was pretty much disgusted with myself. I grew uncomfortable with what was happening early on: we seemed to be willing, as a collective, to follow instructions (from whom?) which became increasingly disturbing and cruel. I registered the changes of language as we were led to view the polar bear as initially ‘noble’ and ‘beautiful’, a ‘powerful apex predator’, but later as a ‘lesser being’ and a ‘beast’. I could see that we were behaving in ways designed to provoke and distress it. Told to assault its body and take away its food to establish our dominance, we did so. Why did we accept the need for that?

I took some comfort afterwards, during the group discussion, from observations that were made about the nature of theatre. We’d bought tickets, we’d come to see the show: we therefore knew that this wasn’t real. (Immersive performance, though, is intended to nudge you over that line). We’d assumed our instructions came from the performer, although this was never stated. To fail to comply might therefore cost us our evening. So we went with it, playing along, wanting to know what happened.

All this is true, but hearing how earlier performances had gone got me angry all over again. Previous audiences had argued and even refused to follow orders. Now I wished that I had too. I was left to ask myself why I didn’t.

Bad stuff runs riot when no-one is willing or able to lead

It’s obvious, really. Keyboard debate is one thing, actual confrontation another. What if these people don’t like me? What if I look silly and can’t defend what I think? When things could get tricky, conformity keeps you safe; toe the line, then no-one will turn on you. The nearest we came to a clash was a woman who said with some heat that “there’s more than one way to stand in front of something’” as she was being urged to act confrontationally towards the bear. She wished instead to win its trust.

But who would really have turned upon whom? The discussion which ended the evening revealed the unease of just about everyone present. However, no-one spoke first. And that’s how it happens – how bad stuff runs riot when not one person is willing or able to lead. Personally, The Privileged showed me this: that I will let cruelty happen without intervening, because I find public speaking scary. I really am the most awful weed.

So think on. I can’t really say that I enjoyed my evening. I probably wouldn’t have missed it. Hashtag #resist, as they say: it’s up to every one of us.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

More Posts - LinkedIn

  • Jonny Rose

    This sounds absolutely incredible. I hope we don’t have to wait too long before we see challenging theatre like this in Croydon again!

  • Omar AS

    Interesting and insightful article. It’s a shame it was a one night only performance.

  • John Gass

    It sounds the sort of performance I’d hate because I don’t like being made to feel that my direct participation is required. Equally though, I suspect I’d have found it as disquieting, haunting, compelling and worthwhile as Liz did.

    It’s reminded me of the 1963 Yale University ‘Milgram Experiment’ which, after the ‘I was only obeying orders’ excuse frequently heard at the Nuremberg Trials, explored levels of obedience in individuals. Here’s a link to a good article about it: