Is our way of talking about politics broken? And what can games to do to help fix it? Red Planet: Revolution director Tom Mansfield shares Upstart Theatre’s vision for using play and imagination to help rethink things right here on earth.
Last week, I did something I haven’t done for a long time - I watched a political speech live on TV. The Prime Minister was making a big announcement about the UK’s climate policy, and as the speech went on I realised that he was playing a particular kind of game. It was a word game where you win by saying one thing while meaning something completely different; and he was brilliant at it. The words he was using were all about radical change - ensuring that the UK would achieve net zero by 2050. But what he meant was that the government would be postponing a whole bunch of measures designed to get us there.
Of course, saying one thing while meaning another has been standard political practice since forever. But what struck me was how obvious the game was, and how tired it’s become. Politics right now feels like the end of a long board game – Monopoly, probably – where everyone’s knackered and they just want to pack up and go home, but the player with the most pretend money just refuses to stop playing. And everyone gets more and more angry and frustrated, and the game drags on and on, and everyone wonders why they bothered.
We made our playable show Red Planet: Revolution because we wanted to make thinking about politics way more fun. We had a vision of a game-theatre hybrid that would use conversation and imagination to help its players envision a better world. We started off by researching moments of profound political change in twentieth-century history, like the end of British colonialism and the fall of the Berlin Wall. We were struck by the combination of exhilaration and terror that people felt living through those moments – the sense of infinite new possibilities mingling, second by second, with the threat of violence and danger of failure. The original idea was that we might set the show in one of these moments, but this just didn’t feel right. We wanted everyone playing our show to feel the fun, joy and drama of having the power to change the world, without feeling constrained by the ‘real’ history.
So, Red Planet: Revolution became a science fiction game, with the audience cast as the leaders of a newly independent civilisation on Mars. To make the show, we’ve called on our love of science fiction and fantasy, and it’s been incredibly exciting to blend those flavours with the historical research from the early versions of the show. By setting the show in a futuristic world we’ve created space for both us and the audience to imagine a world that’s radically different from the one we live in; but thanks to the research we did earlier on, it’s a world that still feels grounded in truth.
Most of all, Red Planet: Revolution aims to create a friendly Martian space dome where people can come together to talk about the kind of world we want to live in. One of my favourite things about the show is that it’s exactly as serious as that night’s audience wants it to be. One night in Macedonia, the show was full of intense conversations about European geopolitics. Another night in Bedford, there was a surprising amount of debate about cheese. In all the performances so far, we’ve seen brilliant moments of connection, where people who might never have had a conversation – never mind one about big ideas – come together and talk. I like to think we’ve created the opposite game to the one I saw the Prime Minister playing the other day. In Red Planet: Revolution, you’ll win by saying what you mean - and listening to other people do the same thing.
Red Planet: Revolution | 31 Oct – 4 Nov at 9pm | Tickets £8 - £15