Breaking the Circuit

Originally posted on 15 January 2011

Last night I attended a performance of Rod Dickinson’s Closed Circuit at the Cockpit Theatre as part of Signal:Noise organised by The Showroom. Produced in collaboration with Steve Rushton, the work consisted of a meticulously staged presidential-style press briefing. Two actors delivered a 30-minute speech entirely composed of fragments from actual speeches given by various heads of states and politicians from the Cold War onwards. The script was visible to the audience in two large autocue screens which revealed the origins of the speech’s various components.

Dickinson states that his work is concerned with “ideas of control and mediation and focuses on the way in which our behaviour is moderated by feedback systems”. By juxtaposing the various fragments of political rhetoric in a continuous stream, he aims to reveal how “similar declarations and political rhetoric have been repeated and reused by numerous governments across continents and ideological divides to justify acts of aggression and state sanctioned violence.” Carefully chosen in collaboration with Rushton, the fragments appeared interchangeable whether the source was Margaret Thatcher, Mikhail Gorbachev, John F. Kennedy or Slobodan Milosevic. Thematically they are linked together through their grandiosity – most deal with existential threats to social orders or economic systems – but also through their sheer banality. The generic ‘crisis’ trumped any hint towards specificity.

The hyperbolic rhetoric was matched with an equally overblown set and staging – straight out of Dr Strangelove. The two immaculately besuited actors delivered the speeches from identical lecterns, with dark behind curtains completing the tableau. The theatricality of this staging accentuated the fabricated-ness of the speech, lending it an air almost of the ridiculous that approached parody. However, without the disruption of the autocue, the convincingly delivered speech would have surely washed over audience, mesmerised by this seeming apotheosis of the masterfully staged political set-piece.

During the performance, most of the audience focused directly on the actors while only occasionally glancing back to the autocue as if to pinch themselves that what they were hearing actually was an assemblage. Occasionally there were small gasps (sometimes followed by chuckles) at some of the most outlandish rhetoric. Interestingly, but perhaps predictably, the most evident audience reactions were to fragments from the more recent speeches, by George W. Bush and especially Tony Blair. It seemed that Dickinson and Rushton had chosen the former when at his most belligerent and folksy, and the latter at his most sanctimonious (although, in hindsight, one might ask, when was he not?).

Although it is entitled Closed Circuit Dickinson’s work in many ways acts to break the circuit. The work reveals the insidious means by which political rhetoric acts as a decoy for the exploitation of crises for the deployment of regressive social and neoliberal economic policies – what Naomi Klein calls The Shock Doctrine. This is all the more topical amidst the hyperbolic scaremongering over the UK’s apparently impending financial meltdown as a decoy for the roll back of the state for the benefit of the rich and ever further marginalisation of poor. In light of the Tory(-led) governments’s mendacious slogan, “We’re all in this together”, Dickinson’s work is a valuable intervention on the mechanisms – and implications – of political rhetoric.