Unchain Me review – Dostoevsky inspires secret mission on the streets of Brighton

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We are instructed to meet at a secret Brighton location for this site-specific show by the company dreamthinkspeak. For some of us that invites the usual anxieties: when will we be told of our meeting place? (Four hours beforehand when the e-ticket arrives, in my case.) What is the show about? Why are we asked to register on a website called ARK-22?

The whys and what-fors are not immediately answered when we receive an induction into the night’s events, which are inspired by Dostoevsky’s novel The Possessed and are created and directed by Tristan Sharps. We will be travelling in small groups called “cells”, and will receive instructions via little laptops that we wear around our necks.

My fellow cell members are Brightonites who have taken part in dreamthinkspeak shows before and tell me it is, in their experience, a “leap into the unknown”. They are right, though there seems to be more guidance than usual because our laptops on this night are glitchy. We do receive some messages from a character called Cyrus (Azaan Symes) who we follow around town. We are told of a family tragedy that led to Cyrus’s initiation into an underground social justice movement called ARK-22 (aha!). It is, he says, an activist group aiming to overturn parliamentary democracy, which he brands elite and self-interested, and to install “direct democracy” instead.

Cyrus’s arguments around social inequality are idealistic but compelling, and we find ourselves following him through the city to a meeting house, a pub and into Brighton’s historical centre including the museum and pavilion. We encounter other activists from ARK-22, collect parcels and witness a hostage situation.

Abigail Lythgoe, Tatenda Madamombe and Marie-Helene Boyd in Unchain Me.
Snitch or stay silent … Abigail Lythgoe, Tatenda Madamombe and Marie-Helene Boyd in Unchain Me. Photograph: Lucas August

Sometimes it seems as if we are just traipsing, though the route shows poverty and homelessness in the city as well as Brighton’s heritage and wealth, which we are reminded was built on slavery. Along the way we hear other personal and intensely told stories from activists and these moments are full of drama – more dramatic than the action itself. We also hear the persuasive words of a police officer (Antonia Draper) who informs us of ARK-22’s violence.

We must decide whether to be snitches or to side with the actions of ARK-22 in our silence. The experience demands complicity or compliance. In our group we discuss not only direct democracy and the ethics of violent activism but also our jobs and – ironically – house prices in Brighton.

There is a final, riveting debate between the leader of ARK-22 and a rich governess (Rachel Heaton). My sympathies for ARK-22 waver when the value of the people’s vote is discussed and the shadow of the European referendum hovers, unspoken. How easily can direct democracy be manipulated or corrupted?

But the show’s greater theme of systemic inequality and political abuses of power could not be more relevant now amid poverty in Britain and the aftermath of Partygate. If the action feels weak at times, the issues are potent and linger in the mind. And as much as it is a voyage into the unknown, it returns us to the ills of our society, and those at its margins.