Music Features

Michael Moore: Live at the Roundhouse, London (23/11/02)

Ramshackle, brash, polemic and populist. And that's just the theatre. At the atmospheric but crumbling Roundhouse, once a punk venue and soon - we hope - to be renovated as first-class theatre, Michael Moore is playing to a home crowd. The Michigan filmmaker has been hard to avoid in recent weeks. Stupid White Men was finally released after the brave efforts of an anarchist librarian, to the ire of the Telegraph, and his anti-gun film Bowling for Columbine has gained critical eulogies and international prizes. Whereas his NRA-baiting documentary gelled around the fear - of black men, of crime, of failure at high school - that leads otherwise ordinary yanks to turn their houses into fortresses and kill 11, 000 of each other every year, his live-act revolves on his diagnosis of apathy as a connecting thread between the rise of Blairist Thatcherism in the UK, the Enron scandal and US ignorance of, well, pretty much everywhere in the world.

So first the gripes, to save you reading the Evening Standard's inevitable diatribe. Moore is no Bill Hicks. Sure, he's passionate, angry and informed, but his early delivery is nervous and unsure. He paces the stage, stares at the floor and stumbles over his lines. The early skits on football chants and the Fire strike are not what a left-leaning, but undoubtedly middle class audience - hey, we are in NW1 - have been expecting. As the laughs grow with skits about mobile phones in Afghan caves ("and I can't even get cell calls in Kenn'ish Town") and a supreme impression of the North Korean politician trying to get in on the axis of evil, Moore turns serious. His long story on his involvement in the Jerusalem Film Festival and charges of anti-Semitism after his first movie, Roger and Me, leads to what amounts to a sermon on passive resistance as a political tool. To some heckling, which Moore, not a natural stand-up, ignores, he outlines his difficult but compelling stance on the Palestine situation. It's awkward listening at times, but Moore's sincerity and surprisingly coherent moral stance carry him through. Before the break, a sketch called "Stump the Yank" allows the audience their chance to, well, laugh at stupid Americans, as a random Berkeley grad out-Bushes the "president" in international trivial pursuit. It's silly, but Moore's point - "you should not be allowed to bomb a country that you can't find on a map" - isn't.

The second half of the show is a more extreme amalgam of his deadly serious diatribes and satirical comedy. Perversely, where Moore is unique, and where his material is strongest, is precisely those moments when no one is laughing, and where the traditional comic should get his coat. Moore's extended explanation of his philosophy of lazy activism - the discovery that if lots of people do very little they can achieve more than a few isolated campaigners - is played for few laughs. While this more serious material is peppered with his jokes about librarian chat-rooms and stoner petitions, it segues into perhaps his most offensive, controversial, yet bravest observations, as he joins the dots between the apathy of the middle-classes, the uncrossed police line at Columbine, and stunning suggestions about the acquiescence of the hijacked passengers in the 11th September attacks. No one claps or laughs as he asks why members of the comfort class sat like cattle as the hostages flew them to their deaths, but suggestions that would lead to the vilification of a politician, from the mouth of by now desperate and enraged Moore carry a heavy moral charge. His bombshell on moral and political apathy carries him to more familiar territory, as he bewails the failure of the media and public to ask the awkward question about the world's political administration. "9/11" becomes a complex network of secrets and lies, linking the Bush family business, jnr's first venture Arbusto, the bin Laden family and the Taliban to the Enron collapse, Haliburton's Afghan connections and a private jet journey taken by the bin Laden family from the US to France post-twin towers at, wait for it, the expense of the Bush family. It's overwhelming, shocking, and frankly unbelievable at times, but Moore sources all his material from the mainstream media, and any disbelief in the audience is the very point of his missive - no one likes to ask difficult or scary questions, as the answer may very well destroy your faith in the status quo.

Moore ends with a suitably anti-corporate sketch about the loyalty card, encouraging the audience to give up their "Nectars". Flanked by the banner posters of a youthful Dubya, Saddam aka Mark Spitz, a very young bin Laden and possibly the most frightening picture of a British Prime minister since the Thatcher years, Moore leaves to a standing ovation and curtain call from an emotionally drained audience. Like the Wal-Mart scenes in Bowling, Moore shows the power of informed, small-scale yet impassioned activism. The anti-war pamphleteers outside are doing much brisker business than before. USA! Indeed.