Operation Black Antler is an immersive theatre piece in which the audience are tasked with infiltrating a protest group. In collaboration with Hydrocracker, we are bringing the work to the Southbank Centre in April.
I want to explain why I believe this is an important time to tackle issues of undercover policing and why Operation Black Antler does this in a unique way.
This is a piece of work posing serious moral questions, not an entertainment. Both companies are non-profits (Blast Theory is a registered charity) and the project was developed over two years. In the tradition of psychological experiments by Philip Zimbardo and Stanley Milgram, it puts each audience member into a murky ethical position and invites you to take decisions. You must weigh for yourself the boundary between acceptable monitoring of threats to public safety and the wholesale abuse of innocent people.
When we first created the show we met with activists including Police Spies Out Of Lives. One activist came into rehearsals to meet the cast and share his views. At our invitation, others came to test performances. One outcome of that discussion was this blog post. We took the criticisms of the show to heart and made a number of changes in direct response.
We introduced a post show debriefing for every single performance. The audience are invited to reflect on what they did in discussions informally moderated by Blast Theory and Hydrocracker. We added a range of research materials that lay out exactly how the Special Demonstration Squad acted and how their abuses were perpetrated. We have copies of Undercover by Rob Evans and Paul Lewis available. A pre planned discussion chaired by Polly Toynbee also included representation from Liberty who focused on the Investigatory Powers Bill (Snooper’s Charter) and the need to promote surveillance powers that are human rights compliant.
With the Undercover Policing Inquiry getting dragged into further delays, it is clear that the Metropolitan Police have a deliberate strategy to block any openness about their actions at every turn. Now, more than ever, is important to keep these issues in the public domain and to invite audiences to question their own ethical boundaries.
One criticism we are seeing of Operation Black Antler is that it is a stunt, an entertainment and is offensive. Having presented this piece three times previously, we are confident that this is not the experience for the audience. In Michael Billington’s review for The Guardian he opened with “At what point, if any, is police surveillance justified in civil society?” The Morning Star review by Tanushka Gill concludes:
The genius of Black Antler is it doesn’t tell us what to think. As participants, we make our own minds up about what’s going to happen and the piece is a profound and sobering example of how easy it is for us to change our views and become followers of, or informants to, the police.
Audience responses include “Understand the emotional consequences of being someone you’re not. Question the decisions we as a society make in how we monitor extremist groups.” And “an immersive drama about police surveillance and political extremism, topics that are both sensitive and relevant.“
I hope you will come and take part at the Southbank Centre and decide for yourself.