Head Of State presented by Grande Productions
What Is It?
Head of State is a one-hour political comedy play by Rob Thorman.
What Is It About?
Mo (Akshay Shah), an Ariana Grande super-fan, has just become head of the fictional country of Nechora. His civil servant (Lawrence Russell) prepares him for his congratulatory calls from the rest of the world’s leaders (all also played by Russell), where Mo advises them on their geopolitical problems.
How Did It Make Me Feel?
This has a clever and engaging conceit, reminiscent of Becky Mode’s Fully Committed, where one actor uses phones to play several characters. Despite the ingenuity, both shows fall into the trap of being over-reliant on stereotyped characters.
Head of State is fast paced, thanks to tight direction. Russell delivers a slick and adroit performance as nine different global leaders and the CEO of all the world’s tech companies. Playing the ‘straight man’ amongst so many farcical characters, Shah has a much harder task, which he does well, if a little frenetically at times. The use of the Nechoran flag on the backdrop works well when it is changed into a projector screen for an innovative use of video. The rest of the set is simple and functional - although placing Russell’s costume changes on opposite sides of the stage did the actor no favours, causing him to have to run across the stage mid-change on a number of occasions.
There are some genuinely funny moments, especially at the start as script deftly and hilariously deals with various characters including the Chinese leader. This self-awareness is lacking throughout, as the stereotypes appear to be gross over-simplifications of conceptual national identity. With no real reference or resonance to today’s global leaders (even Germany’s chancellor is played by a man), these stereotypes feel parochial and reductive, and in some places uncomfortable.
It is difficult to see where this fits in the landscape as political theatre. It does not really feel like Mo’s story - he is at the centre of the action, but he does not learn or change; he begins and ends fighting for ‘kinder, gentler politics’ with no room for compromise, which makes empathy tricky - either you agree or you don’t. The piece is not current enough to be effective satire - one of the few contemporary political references was to ill-fated comments by Angela Smith made in February 2019 (Smith is no longer even an MP, losing her seat in December). Moreover, this is one of the few references to women; Aleesha (the play’s version of Alexa) is the only female character to have lines (other than a brief moment in the epilogue, where Mo is told over the telephone by Ariana Grande that he’s an inspiration to her). Considering the rising global prominence of a number of young, progressive women (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Greta Thunberg both leap to mind), the lack of women in the piece feels like a bit of a missed open goal.
The concept of this piece feels like it has great potential, if there is a way to bring these characters to life without stereotyping them; the fact this is unable to get away from ridiculous national stereotypes suggests that may not be possible.
Head Of State is playing at the Studio, VAULT Festival until the 6th February 2020.
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