The thought of seeing a production with audience participation – my participation – would have been bad enough, but the word “immersive” really set me on edge. However with a family member in the Operation Black Antler ensemble cast, attendance was compulsory.
There was something else as well – the subject matter was far from alien to me. In the past I had been involved in anti-fascist organisations that infiltrated the far right.
As the fascist National Front imploded in the early 1980s – after its electoral base plummeted in the wake of Margaret Thatcher’s election in 1979 – a number of small but dangerous organisations emerged. The best known was the British National Party, led by the late tinpot fuehrer and Hove resident, John Tyndall. But there were others too.
Frustrated by their lack of electoral success, far right thugs carried out numerous racist attacks, some of which were fatal. They also attacked their opponents – left wing activists – and anybody else that they saw as fair game.
In London anti-fascist activists attempted to shut down every meeting that the far right organised. It became a game of cat and mouse; secret meeting points and venues. And of course sometimes there was violence.
We monitored the fascists’ publications, but they didn’t give enough information. The best way to find out what they were up to was to infiltrate them. It was a tactic that anti-fascists had employed since the 1930s. The tactics had been handed down from one generation of activists to the next.
We saw fascists as the poison and ourselves as the antidote. We never saw any moral issue with what we were doing. But the state didn’t see it that way. Special Branch and the intelligence services infiltrated our organisations as well as the far right’s. Presumably, because they saw both sides as a threat to public order.
So, we infiltrated the fascist groups, the state infiltrated us both, and the fascist groups also attempted to infiltrate our organisations. There was always the potential that if you didn’t know somebody well that they might not be who they said they were.
We sent our own people into the far right and also recruited others from inside the fascists’ ranks that had become disillusioned. We kept them in as long as was needed to bring out useful information. We wanted to know everything about these secretive organisations. Who was behind them? Who funded them? What illegal activities were they involved in behind the scenes?
We used that information to expose them in our publications, in the wider press and also to engage in physically stopping their activities. We did it because we believed the ends justified the means.
What Operation Black Antler probably does best is captures the buzz of infiltration and the feel of it happening in real time. When you have tasks to carry out, moral questions become secondary.
Operation Black Antler, is an immersive experience that keeps you thinking for a good while afterwards. And not just about infiltration and its morality, but also about the nature of theatre, and perhaps, like me, that sometimes it is worth stepping out of your comfort zone.