Since time immemorial emotional impact has meant more than logic. More exciting, more dynamic and more persuasive than its grumbling counterpart – that harps on about niggling things, like fact and detail, profundity and practicality – it is ‘impulse’ or, euphemistically speaking, ‘intuition’ that packs the punch behind instant big decisions. Thus, we spent thousands of pounds on useless objects, spurt out things that we don’t really think or feel, push buttons that moments later we wouldn’t have pushed.
L’Onada (The Wave) is an extensively researched Catalan-language theatre production, that has come and gone at Teatre Lliure in Gràcia but that I hope will come again. It is a gripping dramatization of an actual event, an ‘experiment’ done on a bunch of school kids in California in 1967. Ron Jones (played by Eduard Farelo) is the teacher of history to adolescents who designed lesson plans creating “a movement, including a salute, a slogan and a secret police force” (wikipedia*) that approximated that of the Third Reich. Apparently, the majority of the kids didn’t clock on to this, au contraire, they got unexpectedly enthused with the project and took it upon themselves to convert the school to fascism. It was only after horrified complaints from parents and other teachers that it ended, with Mr Jones revealing that it was a ‘hoax’.
This rather sinister experiment was widely publicised. It was turned into a telly movie in the 1980s, a novel, and another more recent film in 2008. This recent theatre version, by Ignacio Garcia May, is directed by Marc Montserrat Drukker and stars an impressive team of young actors (listed below). A real strength is its choreography, the use of sound and movement that establishes a rhythm and pace that speeds up as the play progresses. The students’ stamp to attention and sharp salute begin to sound resolute, inevitable, like a military march.
As each student’s individuality is consumed by this machinery the relationship between them fractures. Robert (Joan Sureda) betrays himself for the approval of ‘the group’, Sherry (Alba Ribas) informs on another student. Jones and a handful of meaningless abstracts, ‘power, community and action’, become all-powerful ideological focus points for a slew of personal emotional reactions – never thought through, never shared. As the students blend into the collective they become more isolated, and Jones is no exception, at times you feel that he too is sucked into his own creation.
Drukker sticks to the story’s original context but this doesn’t detract from the contemporary relevance of its themes. In an age when extremism has become a political affiliation in itself, the revival of Ron’s experiment is timely. At the heart of this movement is a form of arrogance that emotional impulses should be acted on without consideration for the facts. This is more than a play to warn kids not to bow to group pressure, it’s a reminder to all of us who might feel any pressure at all to conform to an abstract, be it ‘community’ (the Islamic ‘world’), ‘action’ (Just Do It!), ‘liberty’ or ‘power’.
Cast (clockwise from left) : Alba Ribas – Sherry / Boris Cartes – Steve / Marta Ossó – Wendy / Martí Salvat – Robert / Joan Sureda – Doug / Eduard Farelo – Ron Jones / Malcolm McCarthy – Norman / Andrea Ros – Aline (with the ball) / voice over Jordi Royo
*I’m overtly quoting wikipedia here, rather than cutting and pasting and pretending its my own…
You can see L’Onada at Teatre Lliure in Gràcia from March 20 – April 20 2014.
Thanks to Anna Aurich for the script and Ros Ribas for the photos.