Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Operation Black Antler

Matt Adams, Jem Wall, Richard Hahlo, Ju Row Farr and Nick Tandavanitj
Blast Theory and Hydrocracker
HOME, Manchester
07 June 2017 to 17 June 2017

The Milgram experiments tested the extent to which individuals would follow orders from someone in authority by requiring participants to administer electric shocks to subjects while assuring them that all was well despite screams suggesting the contrary. With Operation Black Antler, Blast Theory set out to challenge the liberal sensibility of the audience as to the extent to which state surveillance of individuals is acceptable by casting them as undercover operatives in an immersive theatre production that makes them complicit in a monitoring operation. 

Ah, but if you get involved in politics you leave yourself open to the thing politicians fear most of all – ‘events, dear boy, events'. One imagines that when Operation Black Antler was conceived Blast Theory could assume the audience might oppose surveillance, but, after recent terrorist atrocities, it is possible that such opinions could have changed. To an extent Blast Theory guard against reluctance on the part of the audience by using right-wing extremists as the subjects to be monitored. 

Actually, environmental issues limit the political impact of the play. The immersive aspect – that requires patrons to assume false identities, locate and discreetly interrogate suspects – becomes so absorbing, so much fun, that you tend to overlook the moral context. The cloak-and-dagger stuff starts early, with text messages used to direct patrons to rendezvous points, give directions on how to proceed when suspects are identified, and advise when to exit the location. There is a strong sense of authenticity, with a briefing in a dank location at which we are advised how to build credible false identities, how to avoid making basic errors, and given our assigned target, who we are expected to identify and trick into incriminating themselves.   

The evening is full of surprises and more than a little tension. It becomes apparent early on that we are being investigated just as much as we are investigating others. The suspects are holding a fund-raising event in a local pub, and in order to get to our ‘person of interest’ we have to get past a number of others who seem very interested in our names, workplaces and political opinions. There is a sense of intimidation. Even when you make contact with your POI, there is a possibility they may introduce you to someone who wants to convert you to an extreme viewpoint. Mobile phones may by confiscated, or borrowed with the sinister promise that sympathisers will be in touch. 

There is even a hint of humour. Try having a discreet conversation in a noisy pub: "Our POI is in the ‘Elle’ shirt." "Pardon?" "I SAID: 'OUR POI IS IN THE ELLE SHIRT'." 

The covert aspects of Operation Black Antler are absorbing, but the lack of a clear conclusion is not only dramatically frustrating, it limits the political impact. Participants are given no idea of the consequences of their recommendations, so they have the fun of playing ‘spy’ but never get to feel the guilt of having possibly made the wrong choice. Granted, covert operatives cannot expect to be told the outcome of their recommendations, but making the audience aware of the implications of their choice would draw out the moral aspects of state authorised surveillance.

Reviewer: David Cunningham