“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” In school we are told that by learning about history and George Santayana’s sentiment, we are working to prevent atrocities of the past from reoccurring. Yet, as recent events in the USA demonstrate, for many it is hard to see such history being repeated; that today’s intolerance bears any resemblance to the attitudes of Nazi Germany, with their concentration camps in tow. How easily fascist mentalities can spread is the subject of The Wave, the first act of a double-bill performed by the Almeida Young Company at the Rose Lipman Building. This provocative drama examines how one teacher’s experiment – a class project on group identity – rapidly spins out of his control, and leaves its participants devastated when it comes to an end.
This lively young cast are full of the enthusiasm as the play begins and their energy keeps the action flowing at a good pace. Their classroom banter and interactions with one invites the audience into an A Level Sociology class. The fun doesn’t last long, however, as their teacher Mr Turner (performed by Ian Cameron) begins to explain their group project exploring collective identity. The changes are almost instant: within a few minutes, we see the class moulded into an image of order and discipline. Their own sense of personal achievement and identity is quickly broken down as they are told that their grades will be a reflection of the class as a whole and rather than individual performance. As more rules are implemented, the various personalities of the students are lost in this new, shared mentality.
From the group emerges two standout performers: Tyreke Leslie and Rawaed Asde. Leslie stands strong as Simon, one of the few students who sees the danger of a group like The Wave and is unwilling to be “brainwashed” or bend to his classmates’ will. Meanwhile, Asde as Ahmed reflects how people can find purpose when part of an exclusive community. While these performers are able to hold their own throughout – regardless of how many others are onstage – there are some greener performers who stick out when in scenes with only one or two other cast members. Unintentionally, the company shows itself to be like The Wave in terms of its strength as a unit. It’s a shame that this intensity, which is often intimidating, is not consistent in these smaller group scenes.
The 1967 Third Wave Experiment, on which the play is based, has been dramatised before – notably in Die Welle, a German film of the same name. While transported to a London sixth form, Molly Taylor’s play parallels most of the action imagined by Dennis Gansel in his critically-acclaimed work. As the “school project” evolves, we see the students alienate those who don’t conform to the values of the group and design a uniform to emphasise their shared identity. We then later watch as the mob mentality of The Wave reaches a violent climax when they attend a football match (in the film, it’s water polo). Given how many similarities there are between the two, those who are familiar with the film may be disappointed by the lack of originality in Taylor’s exploration of the revelations and consequences brought upon by the 1967 experiment.
This ultimately takes away from the performers’ hard work, for Taylor is a talented young writer and her previous original works Cacophony and Extinguished Things will surely have filled some seats with those keen to see her latest work. Knowing the outcome of the play takes away most of suspense and intrigue the actors are trying to incite from their audience. When Taylor does move away from the film’s plot – such as in the final moments of the piece – we do see her strength as a storyteller come through. The impact The Wave has on the students – both in the immediate aftermath and years later – highlights the devastating effects such “experiments” can have on its test subjects, who are unable to remove themselves from the damning narrative concluded by the scientists’ research. The added question of consent neatly enveloped by Taylor into the drama’s opening and close leaves us thinking about the participants of real-life social experiments – such as Milgram’s electric-shock experiment and Zimbardo’s prison simulation – and the mass media attention that has haunted them since.
In the final scenes of the play, as the students discover the true nature of The Wave, the silence in the crowded hall is deafening. The maturity the cast show in handling this subject is admirable, and it is their synchronicity as a collective that gives The Wave its desired impact.