sat 04/12/2021

Assembly, Donmar Warehouse online review - the future is coming, ready or not | reviews, news & interviews

Assembly, Donmar Warehouse online review - the future is coming, ready or not

Assembly, Donmar Warehouse online review - the future is coming, ready or not

The theatre's local community assembles a strange little show about the apocalypse

Cardboard conglomerate: Assembly at the Donmar WarehouseRichard Davenport

“Your task is to imagine the future.” That’s what the citizens of Assembly, a new streamed production performed and devised by the Donmar Warehouse’s Local Company, are told.

It can be anything they like, so long as they make it together – which is the catch, of course. Since when did a citizens’ assembly ever agree on anything? 

Assembly marks the Donmar Local Company’s first production, co-created with writer Nina Segal and director Joseph Hancock. It was originally scheduled for 2020, but the virus intervened, rendering it basically a beefed-up Zoom production. The technical wizardry is impressive; the cast float around the screen in little boxes, merging into or out of footage from the Donmar itself. There were some hold-ups during the original broadcast, but considering the crew were having to wrangle at least 12 different live feeds into one hour-long show, I’d say it went pretty smoothly. 

The citizens have a good giggle, when they’re first given their mission. “Do you think your children will be laughing as the water engulfs their homes?” asks the mysterious figure in the centre of the screen, and then tugs a gas mask over her face. An undefined apocalypse is on the way, hence the need to create tomorrow. The ticking clock in Max Pappenheim’s score acts as a ceaseless reminder that the future is coming, ready or not. 

Assembly, Donmar Local Company Suffice it to say, the citizens aren’t up to the task. A polar bear (pictured above) comes late to the meeting, and they get sidetracked by arguing over whether he counts as a citizen. New deliberators take their place: first animals and natural elements, and then stars and planets and solar systems, representing the universe itself. The cast – residents of Camden and Westminster, the Donmar’s home boroughs – aren’t professional actors, and you can kind of tell. The standout performance is an appropriately regal turn from the Sun – the celestial body, not the tabloid. I’d tell you her name, but the cast aren’t listed according to their characters. It adds to the feeling that Assembly was, well, assembled: stacked together by many hands scattered around the country. 

That’s what the future ends up looking like, too: a cardboard city, with building blocks labelled SHOPS and STUFF. Frankie Bradshaw’s set and costumes are playful without being twee; the Sun looks radiant in a spiky orange headdress, and the title cards are black marker on more cardboard, like hastily scrawled protest signs. Assembly skirts close to current events without naming them outright: the polar bear is accused of being in league with the natural elements that have destroyed the cardboard conglomerate, just because of the way he looks. “I’m not like them,” he protests, but the humans aren’t listening. 

The problem is that Assembly can’t decide whether it wants to be a parable or a slice of gritty realism. The piece is rendered in fairytale language, which sometimes borders on the patronising and sometimes throws up a gem: “I’ve nothing against democracy,” sniffs one citizen. “I just don’t see why it has to be so violent.” Ultimately, this strange little show tells us that things are bad, and we can try our best to make them better. Not the most original message, but one that bears repeating, especially in these times.

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