Henry Raby’s fifty minutes in Bashee Labyrinth is expressly presented as a place to try new material and get a breather from his regular show, Letter to the Man (from the Boy), in the same venue. Given that, it’s a reasonably interesting diversion, half lecture and half spoken word, but it doesn’t add up to a whole lot.
The first half is an essay that Raby reads aloud animatedly about the history of political activism in poetry. He starts, rather promisingly, with Shelley’s posthumously published denunciation of the Peterloo massacre, but jumps from there straight to Sigfried Sassoon, and sharply onward to the heart of the essay, the American Beats and the radical poets of the Black Power movement. Though this is clearly an area of great interest to Raby, there’s not a great deal of analysis or questioning of the generally accepted narratives surrounding these figures, and there’s an odd moment when he claims to disagree with Margaret Atwood when she said ‘War is what happens when language fails’, and then makes an almost identical statement himself. A little more focus and a little more scepticism would go a long way.
His spoken word piece is a long-form account of his round trip to the protest marches in London earlier in the year, and while an interesting narrative told with energy and conviction, it doesn’t shed a lot of light on the situation, and ends up repeating a number of rather tame political binaries, and anti-police and anti-conservative slogans.
A full history of political activism and art’s role within it is a great idea, but requires a lot more care and attention, plus an interrogation of the idealism and received wisdom surrounding it. Raby makes a game attempt, but it feels very much like a side-project.