Originally published in Venue, issue 824. Since I wrote this, Show of Strength have received word of a recommendation to Bristol City Council to cut completely the funding they receive. SOS are urging people to show their support for the company by writing to the council (postal and email addresses on the SOS page).
Show of Strength’s newest piece turns the back alleys and open spaces of Bristol into impromptu stages for a series of ten ten-minute vignettes on the Fair Trade City. Bristol became great through the brutal iniquities of slavery, but the port which once made its money from the buying and selling of people has now become just the place to pick up some ethically produced groceries and organic textiles. Some pieces (the haunted monologue of “Noah”) reinvest the city with the horrors of its past; others (the thrillingly demented “Bag And Baggage”, with Nadia Williams) confront the idea that post-emancipation, slavery has only been displaced to other victims on other continents under the guise of market forces. It’s uncomfortable viewing at times, and not just because the first hour is spent walking the city (alternatively, the Saturday matinee is presented entirely at Temple Church Gardens), but with a satisfyingly rude wit and charismatic performances, Trade It? moves nimbly around subjects which too often invite worthiness.
Having only a short time to establish each character, and a complicated set of issues to hang on them, Trade It? runs close to cliché a few times (one piece, “Original Skins”, loads up the telling details a little too high and sacrifices theatre to theory). However, a sharp sense of drama and a keen eye for the ironies of exploitation ensures that the show almost never stumbles into predictability. Covering a riot of genres – absurdist allegory, kitchen sink drama, huckster sideshow (with expert tumbler) – Trade It? keeps the audience on their feet throughout. But disparate as the pieces may seem, there are powerful associations at work between them. “Big-Mouth Strikes Again” threatens to be a straw-man portrait of a white racist, but Dan Winter’s performance takes a swerve from antagonism into pathos, and the segment becomes even more interesting when “Calling A Spade A Spade” dissects the etymology of racial insults and empties them of meaning.
Under the direction of Robin Belfield, the actors combine naturalism (early on, there are moments of exciting hesitation as the audience gauges whether the latest person to wander along is an actor, or just an unfortunate pedestrian passing through) with the vigour it takes to fill an open space. And throughout, viewers are called on to participate: chanting to summon a zombie, calling out the punchlines to politically dubious jokes, playing the guests at a tense inter-racial wedding – it’s impossible to be a passive spectator. So when the evening concludes with a painfully funny skit on the ethics of global trade, the audience is already a part of the action, and ready to take home the play’s fair-trade moral along with the fair-trade goodie bag. ****
Trade It? Bristol City Centre (starts at Horse and Rider statue, Lewins Mead; finishes temple church gardens), Tues 24 June-Sun 6 July.