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Liberation Squares: teenage rebellion takes on Orwellian Dystopia

Liberation Squares. Photo (c) Ali Wright.

Liberation Squares by Sonali Bhattacharyya at the Belgrade Theatre on 5 and 6 June.

Review by Annette Kinsella

I’m going to attempt to do something in this review that I doubt anyone has ever done before. I'm going to prove there is a direct line of artistic inspiration connecting Robbie Williams and George Orwell - and the missing link is Liberation Squares, the new show currently playing at the Belgrade Theatre.

Hey! Don't stop reading. Hear me out! I know on first sight the literary godfather of modern-day socialism and the sometime-beleaguered former Take That darling might not seem to have much in common - but they are in fact both avid critics of surveillance government. Which is also where Liberation Squares comes in.

Halema Hussain, Vaneeka Dadhria and Asha Hassan. Photo (c) Ali Wright.

The play tells the story of three teenage girls doing what teenage girls have done for centuries – giggling, falling out, making music, writing poetry. Move along, nothing to see there. The difference is that these girls are condemned as enemies of the state, courtesy of feisty influencer Xara (Halema Hussain), who falls foul of authorities after documenting the girls’ actions and protests on her Insta channel.

The finger of suspicion falls with force on burgeoning rapper Ruqaya, played with a healthy dose of urban cool by Vaneeka Dadhria, and to a lesser extent on studious Sabi (Asha Hassan) who, despite her aversion to social media, is guilty by association.

Writer Sonali Bhattacharyya skilfully links the authoritarian bullies who use UK’s Prevent agenda, instructing public servants like teachers to report any sign of extremism, to intimidate the trio, and the school bullies who exploit the law of the playground to threaten the girls.

Comparisons are also drawn between the power bestowed by the sinister Prevent agenda to crack down on terrorism in today’s society, and Orwell’s concept of thought crime, described in his novel Nineteen Eighty Four, in which just considering dissent is punishable by death.

Just as in Nineteen Eighty Four, the public is filmed constantly. The major difference between Orwell’s dystopia and the present-day police state in which the girls find themselves is that in Orwell’s vision, CCTV cameras are foisted by force on the populace – today, we self-police through our own social media posts which can be used against us. Latter-day video nasties are firmly positioned on the other side of the screen.

A thought provoking play by Sonali Bhattacharyya.

The action rattles along at a fair old pace, leaving the audience in the position of the spectator high on the mountaintop witnessing the train crash – you can see the carriages hurtling towards each other, but are powerless to stop them.

The final denouement, when it comes, seems slightly muted. It’s clear the girls have decided to fight back, but we’re not sure how. But maybe this is the point – the decisive action lies in choosing to rebel, not how the rebellion takes place.

Overall, this is a modern-day, thought-provoking discourse on the power of the state versus the freedom of the individual – and what can happen when the two clash.

And how does Robbie Williams fit in with this? Well his debut album Life Thru A Lens CLEARLY predicted a time when we would be compelled to play out our lives before a judgemental, totalitarian camera. And wasn’t just a big moan about how as an international superstar he had no privacy. Of course not.

For tickets for this evening's performance:


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