The Shape of the Table

Loosely based on the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, The Shape of the Table by David Edgar is set in a fictional Communist country in 1989 as the system collapses. First performed at the National Theatre in London in 1990, it was broadcast as a radio play on BBC Radio 4 as part of their 1989 season.

We start with protests on the streets as party and government officials meet to decide how to handle the next wave of protests: let peaceful protest go ahead, send in the thugs to beat them up, give the thugs live ammunition, call upon their fraternal neighbours to put down the street protests.

No option is to everyones liking. Riffraff and hooligans cannot be allowed to take to the streets, beating up the protesters will be picked up by the BBC, likewise shooting them down and it is possible the thugs will not obey orders, calling upon fraternal neighbours is no longer an option as they have made it clear they will not intervene.

It all goes badly wrong, bloody clashes with peaceful protesters, calls for investigations and reform. Party and government officials meet again. First Secretary says he cannot push through the reforms. This is agreed, and without realising it he has backed himself into a corner and is forced to resign.

A dissident writer is brought out of prison and cast as a go-between. Although the government and party has brought forward what for them is radical reform, the people on the street are demanding more, those for whom power is slipping away cannot keep up.

The play ends with the former First Secretary now in prison and facing charges of treason, corruption and misuse of office, telling the reformists that they are no different to him, that in a few years time the people will look over the barbed wire and will not be able to tell the difference.

Has anything changed?

The alternatives played out as the people took to the streets were played out in Iran this summer. The authorities chose repression and bludgeoned the people into submission, or at least cleared them off the streets, all played out to a world audience on twitter and facebook.

Neda became the face of the Iranian revolution. Slaughtered by the state, an innocent victim, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Twenty years ago, China chose the third option, the media was cleared off the streets, the People’s Liberation Army rolled into Tiananmen Square and pro-democracy demonstrators were massacred.

In Chicago in 1968, riot police clubbed protesters at the Democrat Party Convention.

A decade ago in Seattle the police attacked protesters on the streets.

Last summer, police brutally attacked Climate Camp protesters at Kingsnorth Power Station in Kent.

At G20 in London earlier this year, police were heavy handed resulting in one man killed. Eight months after his death, mystery still surrounds the death of Ian Tomlinson, an innocent man who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. A candlelit vigil will be held in his memory on 1 December 2009 outside the Royal Exchange by Threadneedle Street.

At Climate Camp this summer on Blackheath Common, the police changed tack, a softly-softly approach was taken.

COP15 climate change talks in Copenhagen next month will be a measure of how far democracy has travelled. If Seattle was the coming-out party, Copenhagen is the coming of age. A diverse group of activists will converge on Copenhagen with one single demand, cutting of carbon emissions. One demand, many solutions. The aim at Copenhagen will not be as was successfully achieved at Seattle to shut down the proceedings but to open them up. As with the fall of the Berlin Wall, change will come from below, not be imposed from above. World leaders would be wise to listen.

When world leaders meet they travel to the venue in armoured vehicles, hide behind 12-foot high razor wire barricades, police club the people on the street. Terrorism is used as the flimsiest of excuses to authorise repression and lock people away.

Former Eastern Bloc countries who threw off the shackles of Communism are now under the EU yoke, they wanted freedom, to be sovereign countries, they have a long way yet to travel.

At the end of Animal Farm by George Orwell we have the pigs sitting down to dinner with men from outside. Animals looking in from outside look from man to pig and from pig to man and they cannot see the difference.

The Wall may have fallen in 1989, Communism may have collapsed, but we do not as yet have democracy. Politicians are puppets with global corporations pulling the strings.

Also see

1989 Day by Day

The day the wall came down

A sense of the masses – a manifesto for the new revolution

Civil disobedience

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