If, say, Brad Pitt were to play a damaged, disenfranchised homeless guy in an audience interaction-heavy monologue at the National Theatre, and if he were, in character, to ask somebody in the front row for some change, that person would probably giggle, faint, then take a selfie.
Unkempt Welshman Rhys Ifans isn’t Pitt-level famous, but nonetheless, it’s hard to imagine a bigger star who’d be capable of tackling Danny, the rough sleeper protagonist of Tim Price’s play. We don’t ever believe the scruffy Ifans is an actual tramp, and that’s ultimately ‘Protest Song’s biggest flaw, but at the same time he makes a bloody good fist of not looking like a celebrity slumming it.
It’s a stunningly committed piece of acting from the star, who shambles across the stage brokenly, gregarious in his way but prone to terrible, frustrated rages, just the right mix of funny, heartbreaking and dangerous.
Is it enough to make Polly Findlay’s production work, though? Danny’s rambling, ranty account of getting swallowed up by Occupy London’s takeover of St Paul’s, and how the protesters’ initial acceptance of him serves to restore a measure of his dignity, is lovely stuff, peppered with plenty of deliciously foul language. And the final sequence, where Merle Hensel’s set comes into its own and Danny howlingly lays into the hypocrisy at the heart of bourgeoisie attitude to the homeless – both ours and Occupy’s – is devastating stuff that lands Ifans a deserved standing ovation.
But might this have worked slightly better in a standard, prosaic arch set up? Ifans’s frequent interactions with the audience – imploring us to give him our mobile numbers, asking for a light, snarling at a critic, pleading for somebody to dance with him – are never as uncomfortable for us as they’re clearly envisaged as being. It’s not through any fault of audience or performer, but it feels overambitious to expect even this performance to completely suspend our disbelief – too often sections that should hit hard feel like light relief.
By Andrzej Lukowski