Which do you value more? Material possessions or the transformative power of literature? That was the dilemma pitched to Praxis Makes Perfect attenders in the show’s “important arrival information”, which instructed audience members to write a message in a favourite book and prepare to give it away to a fellow comrade.
Those wary about donating such a meaningful personal item to a stranger are likely to have their horder’s tendencies challenged in this spirited collaboration between National Theatre Wales and the cerebral supergroup founded by musicians Boom Bip and Gruff Rhys. Taking as its starting point the second album by Neon Neon – a conceptual work that journeys through the controversial life of multimillionaire Communist publisher, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli – this clash of music and drama is heavy with talent and ideas. At its core, though, is a message as simple as a blurb: books are precious, powerful and vital things, and their censorship should be fought with as much force as possible. On the subject of favourite books, in mine we’re told that manuscripts don’t burn; in this production, we’re reminded that some people will try their hardest to ignite them.
In the battleground between communism and fascism, it is clear where Praxis Makes Perfect’s audience could be found. If allegiance wasn’t evident in the sneering discussions surrounding private healthcare in the queue outside this east London venue, it was to be seen in how the majority of audience members were sporting at least one red item of clothing – a requirement that, according to the ticket confirmation, would help a fellow comrade to identify you.
Rouged and regimented, we were ready to play the immersive parts cast for us and help the communist cause. Together, we passed the manuscript of Revolutionary Russian novel Doctor Zhivago far from the hands of fascist oppressors; then, joined in the spirit of cultural revolution that dripped from Warhol’s Silver Factory, we flung up metallic balloons; finally, united, we raised our left fists in a salute.
If there seemed to be any kind of divide in the audience, it was in the mailing list that brought you there – and whether you saw this unusual event as a gig supplemented by theatre, or theatre enriched with a gig. Whatever your cultural orientation, Praxis Makes Perfect makes for engaging viewing – and, stylistically, it is a real game changer. Some of the actor’s lines may have been enunciated a little too sharply and, as if in compensation, Gruff Rhys buried the lyrical clout of some of Neon Neon’s songs in hazy, sun-kissed mumbles, but Wils Wilson’s direction brought an indisputable wit to the affair, sending up leftish iconography without undermining its power.
As Tim Price’s script lingers over the more eccentric snapshots of twentieth century Communism, Praxis Makes Perfect is not fully realised as a political argument for the radical left – but then it doesn’t need to be. This is the ’60s, remember, and the air is so full of revolutions, it’s like living within an orrery. For one song only, the clothes are off and the paintbrushes are out, giving us an insight into a bold and artistic world. While the nude flamboyance of this scene titillates, this moment also engages with the idea that revolution can be born of social and cultural trends, and out of living rooms, private studios and, significantly, trendy inner-city venues.
Anachronism bleeds through this biography. It’s in the music, with synths that wear irony like day-glo sweatbands, and in the visual details, as local artist Chu’s anagrammatical SODTHERICH TFL Overground stickers infuse the production with the concerns of the here and now. Just round the corner from #guardiancoffee, this show feels like the liberal press in theatrical form. And so, despite the clear historical setting, Praxis Makes Perfect could be a companion piece to Price’s The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning, another provocative and musically-driven script, also commissioned by National Theatre Wales.
While some plays let current events breeze in from the cracks in the auditorium doors, Praxis Makes Perfect is saturated with contemporary references. As we follow directions and raise our arms in a “LEFT FIST SALUTE”, we are not just acknowledging a Communist hero, we’re reminded of the ongoing and timeless power of the collective. Now, who wants to swap books?