The New Ten Commandments is a curious beast. It’s a debate more than a show; a faithful parody of a market-research focus group, ostensibly commissioned to re-brand the decalogue for life in the twenty-first century. Led by performance artist Simon Wilkinson, together with Liyuwerk Mulugeta, the session invites its audience to propose and then vote on new rules for the modern age. And to help with the task, Wilkinson presents a range of moral dilemmas – each of which he opens out for discussion in the style of an earnest debate on Radio 4.
But it doesn’t work quite as well as it could. There’s one thing those panel shows invariably have, and The New Ten Commandments doesn’t: a few dissenting voices to build a debate around. On the night I attended – and I’m willing to bet, on most nights – the discussion offered little fresh insight, because everyone present thought pretty much the same things. (We’re all in Brighton. We’ve all bought tickets for an edgy-sounding Fringe show. Turns out we’re all liberal. Who knew?)
And although our hosts are skilled at asking interesting questions, they seem unwilling to truly challenge us. There’s one particular moment when Wilkinson lays a logical trap, by getting us to agree to a statement about personal choice and then pointing out we’ve essentially said it’s OK to ban black guests from a hotel. There’s some scope for real tension there, but he doesn’t press the point home, and even Mulugeta (who is black herself) appears more politely interested than concerned.
There is one striking and thought-provoking twist: a secret being hidden by someone in the room. It certainly throws “thou shalt not kill” into sharp relief, and like everything else about The New Ten Commandments, the revelation is very stylishly and cleverly done. Once again though, they don’t really capitalise on the discomfort it causes; it feels too much like a footnote, when it could and should have been the defining moment of the show. And then, after a final feel-good monologue, we’re sent out into the night in a nice part of Hove – content in the knowledge that our Guardian-readers’ values are fit to fix all that’s wrong with the world.
But the show’s not actually over yet.
Before you leave, they’ll slip you a business card – together with a conspiratorial hint that if you want to probe a little deeper, it might be worth calling the number written on the front. And it’s then that The New Ten Commandments gave me something unexpected, something I genuinely treasured. I won’t spoil the details, but they’ll ask you to tell them about a moment of kindness someone else has shown to you. And in my case, that question triggered a real-world conversation – a word of thanks I owed a friend, and might never have summoned the courage to offer if it hadn’t been for the thoughts planted by this show.
So it’s hard to know what to make of The New Ten Commandments. I can’t in all honesty say it’s powerful theatre, and the “deep satire” promised in the programme listing somewhat passed me by. But it’s interesting and it’s affirming. And in a very specific but very precious way, it made my world a rather better place.