If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.
Bob Dylan – The Times They Are A-Changin’
In the half-century since they were written, Bob Dylan’s words have become an apparently timeless symbol of political upheaval and social unrest. They also lend this play its title. Dylan sings of a sweeping tide to stir up a stagnant political system; this same spirit flickers in ‘Start Swimming’, though never truly shines. The play is constantly on the cusp of saying something profound – but somehow always falls slightly short.
We open to eleven characters, huddled cowering at the edge of the stage. Orders are barked at them by an unknown exterior authority, communicating only in fragmented samples of songs and movies. If they act ‘correctly’, a short satisfying affirmative ding; if they do wrong, a painful electric shock for the entire group. It’s a gripping opening – some of the best theatre on offer at the fringe – as the nascent group first learn to talk, then act, then to obey or face the consequences. The ensemble work here is extremely strong, the consistently brilliant cast exploring the scenario and learning as the audience learn.
It is an abstract and absurdist opening, with a Beckettian repetition that nonetheless allows development and discovery. Ola Ince deserves a lot of credit here, slowly but unwaveringly ratcheting up tension and frustration. Separation and closeness within the group is used cleverly to isolate the action and create visually striking scenes.
The first words spoken on stage are “What are you doing here?”. It’s a question never satisfactorily answered.
However, the abstraction and mystery that initially is the greatest strength of the production soon develops into a thematic confusion that ultimately undermines it. Despite a promising start, the objectives and intentions of both the authority and the group are never fully explored. It is clear that the authority wants conformism: it rewards respect for authority and the careful execution of instructions. As the play develops, the group cycles through a series of reactions to this: obedience, defeat, acceptance, and finally resistance and rebellion. But all this leaves a nagging question in the mind of the audience: to what end?
This is the most significant failing of the production. It becomes sufficiently naturalist that the group’s decision simply to rebel for rebellion’s own sake makes little sense in the absence of real stakes – for what does the group truly have to lose by following orders, and hence, what can it truly gain from disobeying them? And yet it remains sufficiently abstract that these stakes never materialise, and an outside world or broader consequences, repeatedly hinted at, never tangibly manifests. The first words spoken on stage are “What are you doing here?”. It’s a question never satisfactorily answered.
clever dialogue, an exceptional ensemble, and some ingenious sound design
Confusion about character objectives develops into a more fundamental question about what the play’s objectives are, and in particular, it’s attitude to political change. The ending of the play presents us with an inspirational (if slightly clichéd) message of solidarity and unity in the face of oppression – that change can be made if we stand together. Yet throughout, we are met with frequent assertions that change is slow, difficult, impossible even, that we go round in circles and that the issues we face and the spirit of change are the same that Bob Dylan was singing about in 60’s America. “We are not going anywhere” the group chant in unison as the lights dim. It’s a powerful refrain of defiance and disobedience, presented with raised and clenched fists by a forward-looking, unified group. Yet as Dylan’s song plays in the background and the audience begin to filter out, it speaks more of imprisonment or stagnation than of progress and change.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to enjoy here: clever dialogue, an exceptional ensemble, and some ingenious sound design from Max Perryment all come together to make this a highly engaging hour of theatre. However, it is by its nature a piece that incites a search for deeper meaning, and so it is disappointing when it fails to answer the questions it provokes.
‘Start Swimming’ Runs until the 13th August at Summerhall, tickets can be found here.
Image: Helen Murray