Leon Ewing’s The Problem With Evil is a blend of puppetry and political satire which, although at times hit and miss, ultimately succeeds in affecting and engaging with its audience. The show has also generated some heated debate among reviewers and bloggers regarding its purpose, approach and perspective. All in all, this small performance seems to be pushing at least some of the right buttons.
Based on the simple but effectively amusing premise of Evil (that’s capital E evil, the physical embodiment) going on an Al Gore style lecture tour to promote and encourage his cause, Ewing plays the charismatic, upbeat figure by donning a half death’s head mask and channelling the voice of Michael Jackson. Coupled with a broad accented, intimidatingly sharp-toothed deep sea fish named Bruce, our host spends the next hour spruiking those various ways in which evil can and does continue to manifest, while dealing with his own increasingly uncertain views on good, bad, god and love with the help of straight-talking Bruce, some interpretive dance and an acoustic guitar.
Ewing says his aim is to challenge the assumptions of his audience, about the world around them but more importantly, about themselves. Certain moments achieve this better than others. A particular highlight (if it can be called that) was the web cam footage of an eleven year old girl breaking down in tears as her father loudly and angrily threatens the anonymous Internet viewers who have been harassing his daughter after she herself interacted precociously with them online. The audience initially laughed, but it became more and more difficult to find humour in the father’s tirade or the girl’s simultaneous victim-hood and selfish naivety as the video went on. This footage was used perfectly to confuse and confound the viewer’s notion of an appropriate response.
Some criticism of the show has suggested that the images and examples of evil used are obvious or clichéd and even, in a particularly unwarranted attack, that using only events deemed evil from a “western” perspective makes the performance guilty of a “limited Anglo-Saxon world view” that seeks to absolve “the White Guilt” of its “privileged middle class artsy audience.” I urge you to read this particular review by Tiara the Merch Girl and the following exchange between her and Ewing, because it provides an especially potent (and, in fact, clichéd) example of how certain people can still apply ridiculously narrow and unimaginative frameworks to the artistic work they (re)view.
The Problem with Evil is not without flaws. Some (but not all) of the examples Ewing uses to represent evil do verge on cliché. This reviewer, for one, was impressed by the footage of those planes smashing into the twin towers again and again, which seemed newly powerful when seen again after almost ten years, repeated from various angles on a large movie screen and accompanied by Evil’s bleakly satirical dance. However, the footage of bloody fishing practices, including schools of salmon that accompanied Ewing’s final song on acoustic guitar (about salmon), seemed more forced. It fits in with the figure of Bruce, certainly, but was Ewing making a direct point about environmental degradation? Animal rights?
Similarly, one point at which the audience was asked to nominate who was more evil out of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Julian Assange seemed to me like a trick question. Maybe it was. But Evil’s follow up comment, that Assange takes information from big corporations and makes it available for free, while Zuckerberg takes your information and sells it to big corporations, strongly implied a value judgement that didn’t really wash. It may be that such examples were designed to make the audience question their own assumptions and (in the case of Facebook users voluntarily giving up their private information) people’s own complicity in such potentially “evil” situations. The impression given, however, was of a too-specific (and debatable) idea about what deserves to be labelled a manifestation of evil, which potentially undermines the seriousness of “Evil” per se.
These criticisms aside, however, the show is still worth seeing. For all the questionable examples of Evil we are given, there are so many more interesting and in-depth paradoxes raised about life, death, love and, of course, the problem of evil that we can forgive some lapses. Some of these paradoxes, indeed, could be further explored, such as Evil’s closing advice to us that “all you can do to save the planet is kill yourself and everyone you know. But you won’t, because you’re evil.” Begging the obvious question: wouldn’t such actions themselves be the epitome of evil? Or another, raised by one audience member at show’s end: is it good to be evil? Ewing is quick and playful in response to these questions when asked and the spirit of such paradox is felt through most of the performance. Indeed, one of the show’s most appealing features is the sense it gives of being involved in a genuine conversation about philosophy, politics and pop culture, the kind you might have with some of your more witty and intelligent friends (and of course, the embodiment of Evil) down at the pub. Additionally, Ewing is to be commended for putting together such a coherent piece of performance art on his own, drawing on his multi-talented background in performance, music, writing and audiovisual design. It will be interesting to see whether acquiring a separate director (as Ewing plans) will enable him to iron out some of the show’s flaws and further enhance its strengths.
Bottom line: if you’re interested in the ideas we’ve been talking about, explored with reasonable insight and a great sense of involvement (for an audience willing to engage) get along to the Mercury Cinema sometime before March 12th and judge for yourself.