History comes alive in this compelling one-man performance by British poet Jem Rolls.
If you’re over 40, and have generally made an effort to remain informed about news and politics in the world throughout your adult life, you’ll likely recall the key event that Rolls’ narrative hinges on. In 1990, in the waning days of her third term as British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher a.k.a. the Iron Lady attempted to implement a poll tax. Part of the Conservative Party platform since the mid-1970s, it revamped the way municipal government was funded, replacing the equivalent of our property tax (which varies according to the value of the property held by a ratepayer) with a per capita flat tax.
Municipal governments in Britain, at the time, were dominated Labour Party supporters. Within the Conservative Party, the poll tax was seen as a way of reining in local government spending. If even the poorest of its citizens were subjected to taxation, the thinking went, municipalities would have no choice but to cut government programs and services to the bone to avoid impoverishing them.
Because of its regressive nature, the poll tax was heavily criticized by social moderates in Britain. Now at this point, you’re probably thinking, who in their right mind would want to go see a play about taxes? Especially since here in Regina we’ve just weathered two major tax hits with the April 30 deadline for filing our federal/provincial income taxes, and the June 30 deadline for paying municipal property taxes.
Well, in his performance, Rolls doesn’t delve too deeply into the nuances of the poll tax. Instead, he recounts a massive demonstration that was held in London on March 30, 1990 to protest the tax. If you’re tempted to dismiss the title of his performance as artistic hyperbole, don’t. Without actually swinging a billy club, or throwing a brick, or mounting a police charge on horseback, or looting a store, Rolls does an amazing job of recreating the riot that occurred that day as tens of thousands of people crossed the River Thames at Westminster Bridge and converged on the British House of Parliament.
Having participated in several previous demonstrations — most notably, a 1987 march against apartheid — that also deteriorated into violence, Rolls evinces a keen understanding of the dynamics of mass protest and the sometimes brutal tactics that police, aided and abetted by corporate media, use to restore/impose order.
With the recent clashes between police and protestors at the G8/20 summit in Toronto still fresh in the news, the performance takes on even greater resonance for audiences here in Canada.