For me, the power of theatre as a living art form is its ability to hold a mirror up to society, thereby forcing us to question and re-examine the world in which we live – by extension, therefore, theatre is politics. Today I found myself teaching the fundamentals of Brechtian Epic theory (as I do once or twice a year) and I am always energised by the potential and capacity theatre has to bring about change. Theatre is a hugely powerful medium with the ability to make people dig deep and really confront the issues of the moment. Here in Hong Kong during the Occupy protests , it was only a matter of weeks before the first Cantonese language performances hit the stage, questioning the violent and heavy handed reaction of the authorities to what was an essentially peaceful movement.
However, my reason for this post is to share a truly excellent article written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Theatre: the nation’s debating chamber which explores what she calls a golden moment for political theatre in the UK. However, it does more than that – it explores its heritage as far back as Shakespeare in the UK and then even further to the birth of western theatre in ancient Greece.
Theatre is politics, in its blood and bones
I urge you to read it. It may be largely UK-centric, but I know it will have resonances for any theatre maker, anywhere.
Three articles published over the course of the last week, by The Guardian UK, have caught my attention. The first, a review by veteran theatre critic Michael Billington, about a ‘play’ called 2071. I use the inverted commas advisedly at this point, as the piece has one actor, a scientist called Chris Rapley, who spends 70 minutes talking to the audience about climate change. Some might, and indeed have, called it a lecture, nothing more.
Some will argue this is not really theatre. But the idea that theatre should be exclusively reserved for fiction has been knocked on the head by a surge of documentary dramas and verbatim plays. And Katie Mitchell, who directed both this show and Ten Billion, realises that the eye needs to be satisfied as well as the ear. Rapley sits in a chair and, without notes, talks to the audience with an astonishing calm and command of facts for 75 minutes. Meanwhile Chloe Lamford’s design presents us with swirling video images behind him that illustrate Rapley’s arguments and have a strange beauty of their own.
The play is being staged at The Royal Court in London under the directorship of Katie Mitchell, who did a similar staging two years ago with a piece entitled Ten Billion where scientist Stephen Emmott (below) spoke about global over-population and its consequences. In fact Ten Billion was given the number 10 spot in the best plays of the year, according to one newspaper.
In this podcast from the Royal Court Duncan Macmillan (co-writer), Mitchell (director) and Rapley (speaking as scientist, co-writer and performer) talk to literary manager Christopher Campbell about the play.
I’ll leave it to you to ponder whether the classification as theatre is a correct one. Mitchell and Macmillan talk further, in the second of the articles I referred to earlier, about their reasons and the processes behind verbatim theatre of this kind. Climate change play 2071 aims to make data dramaticis written by Stephanie Merritt:
“As a dramatist, I’m interested in working with text in a different way,” Macmillan explains, when I meet them during a break in rehearsals at their south London studio. “There was the formal challenge of how to express Chris’s science, and what we could bring to him as theatre-makers – not just with a different audience for those issues, but in terms of technique and how to structure the material. For example, if Chris is writing a scientific paper or delivering an academic lecture, the convention is that you begin with your finding and go on to explain it. But that’s like Hamlet avenging his father’s death in the first five minutes. The simultaneous challenge we’ve had is how to take the anger and emotion out of the issue and at the same time make the data dramatically compelling to listen to.”
The subject matter is undoubtedly emotive, but more so political and therefore ripe for the theatre – even if it is a difficult subject to stage.
I am sure that it is no coincidence that on the same day Billington’s review for 2017 was published, he also wrote a rallying piece entitled Speaking truth to power: this is the rebirth of political theatre in which he talks about the resurgence of political theatre on the British stage at the moment, 2017 included. You can read the article yourself, but I’ll finish this post with his final paragraph which says much about the theatre I was brought up with, educated by and in which I believe passionately.
It is also something that seems part of our native bloodstream. Some years ago I was invited to take part in an international discussion of political theatre organised by the British Council in Santiago. After I had talked about the British theatre’s oppositional tradition, two French delegates treated my remarks with polite condescension. They observed that someone had recently staged a play in Paris about President Bush but that it had excited little interest. As we talked, I realised we were arguing from different premises. For my French colleagues, theatre was primarily an aesthetic discipline and something apart from life. From my entrenched Anglo-Saxon perspective, it was a vital part of life; and that inevitably embraces politics. I remain convinced to this day that among British theatre’s greatest strengths are its readiness to put our society under the microscope and its willingness to speak truth to power.
The Scotsman newspaper published an interesting article this week, Debating Political Theatre, written by Tiffany Jenkins, a cultural commentator. In it she suggests that even in an age of austerity and economic woe across much of the world, theatre has yet to respond in a robust and meaningful way. I don’t necessarily agree with her take, but it certainly gives pause for thought.
Modern social drama has plenty of targets but is awash with complacency at a time when we badly need riotous debate, writes Tiffany Jenkins
POLITICAL theatre has a long and honourable tradition, reaching back to Ancient Greece when playwrights satirised the existing system to powerful effect. More recently, in the 1970s and 80s, political theatre was alive with attacks on……capitalism. At its best, it was vibrant and uncompromising. Most importantly, it had bite.
Today, over three years into the age of austerity, and political theatre appears to be in rude health. Its boom is suggested by the success of Theatre Uncut, formed in 2010 in response to public spending cuts and with the intention of encouraging debate and action. Leading playwrights have responded to this contemporary vehicle for short work made available for free for anyone to perform for a limited period. And they have done so in their thousands – so far, more than 3,000 people have staged these plays in more than 17 countries across four continents. This Saturday, there is a Mass Action Day where people will simultaneously stage seven new works written in response to the provocation: “Do we all get more right wing in hard times?”
There is a lot on show. Appearances, however, can be deceptive, because despite all this activity – the multiple productions, prizes, plaudits and the applause – there are limitations to political theatre today. These are in part due to certain inherent difficulties with it – it can easily veer into didactic agitprop, which is boring – but there are also more profound problems with the politics at the heart of the works, and the state of affairs that they inadvertently reveal. Taking a closer look at political theatre today – what is on offer, who it is for and what it says – and you find a complacent body of writing that flatters the audience and is devoid of critical thinking.
Theatre Uncut aims to create a conversation about important everyday issues, a laudable purpose, but the work staged is very much a singular view of the world, and notably black and white. The objects of criticism and those who are to blame are cynical politicians, greedy capitalists and racists. One such play is Church Forced To Put Up Gates After Font Is Used As Wash Basin By Migrants, written by the comedian Mark Thomas. It’s about a right-wing newspaper owner who used to publish porn, who is obsessed with depicting immigrants as “shit”, the EU as “shit”, and the BBC as “shit”, and who thinks everyone who works for him is “f****** useless”. He is taken hostage by women in balaclavas who threaten to kill him unless he prints a pro-migration editorial.
If this work contributes anything to political debate, it’s cliché. Because we have heard this before – there is nothing surprising, complex, or nuanced in this play or the others it accompanies. Most of them are cartoon depictions of nasty right wing people and lovely lefties who think the right kind of thoughts. Frankly, most of the plays are just long rants. It is clearly assumed that audiences know better, and are thus reassured about their views and can go home contented having been congratulated. It’s all very safe.
The problem with the pantomime visions of what is effectively the opposition is that they just don’t ring true. I say this not as a right-wing newspaper owner or as a capitalist, but as someone who is interested in working out what is wrong today, and it’s really not as simple as how things are depicted in works such as Church Forced To Put Up Gates After Font Is Used As Wash Basin By Migrants – in which there is a lot of profanity but little insight.
Take another of the plays being performed this week, The Wing by Clara Brennan. One of Brennan’s main characters is Mick, a white working class bloke who reads The Sun (there is a repetitive theme in the plays which depicts tabloids as disgusting and their readers as scum), wraps himself in a “light blood-spattered St George’s flag” and who dislikes immigrants. His daughter, Kerry, is a right-on thinking woman who had had her picture taken for Page 3 in order to later reveal that at the very same time as she was getting her bits out, she was by then already pregnant by a “brown person”.
In The Wing, there is no attempt to persuade those that may not think or feel the same, and no attempt to understand people who do not agree. It also feels out of date, just repeating the politics of the 1980s and 1990s, refusing to address the present. And this is why is has no bite, no power: it doesn’t aim to win hearts or minds, and it doesn’t address the present with any urgency.
The political theatre of the past tried to influence, the political theatre of the present assumes things will never change. What The Wing also and unintentionally shows is the contempt some of these playwrights have for the white working class, the social group habitually blamed for everything, but who were once an important social force in politics.
There is nothing wrong with going to see a dramatisation of opinions with which you agree, but for the work to be effective, to have an impact, it needs to challenge those who come from shared outlooks and try to understand those that don’t. Indeed, some of the best work has done just this – John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular 7:84 theatre company, is a case in point. McGrath always said that political theatre should avoid agitprop and confront the audience, make them feel uncomfortable and question their own positions.
Political theatre today should be a place of riotous debate. Even if the playwrights and producers are singing from the same hymn sheet – and they usually are – there is plenty to discuss and argue about. I am not advocating that people tear each other apart, but suggest that constructive questioning is needed in the cause of clarification.
If we do not take ourselves and audiences out of our comfort zones, and try and persuade others, political theatre will continue as a dampener to debate, a sedative rather than a spur to action. It is time to stop applauding and cheering. This sort of political theatre doesn’t deserve an encore.
Now it is clear that Jenkins is taking particular aim at a movement called Theatre Uncutwhich was created in 2010
to encourage debate and galvanise action around political issues that affect all of our lives.
According to Lyn Gardner, Theatre Uncut isn’t just a performance, it’s an idea: that theatre can be immediately responsive to world events, engender discussion and effect change. Founded in response to public service cuts (in the UK), it suggests that theatre has a part to play in the protest movements that are gathering pace across the world in response to economic downturn and events in Syria. The lead time between a play being written and actually being staged is often more than a year; Theatre Uncut, by contrast, is theatre’s rapid response unit. The plays are written speedily and given just one day of rehearsal: actors often have scripts in hand.
So far Theatre Uncut plays have been performed by over 3,000 people in 17 countries across 4 continents. Performances have happened everywhere from theatres in New York, community centres in Scotland, schools across England, universites in South Africa, on the streets in Spain, on public buses in Mexico, to village church halls in Wales.
Playwrights have come from many countries – Syria, Spain, Argentina, Iceland, Greece, UK, USA, Egypt and so on. You can even obtain the plays free of charge for performance, as long as any profits are donated to charity. You can read a review of the latest Theatre Uncut performance, by Susannah Clapp here.
To me, this is how theatre of protest should be happening, and I think Jenkins’ is misguided in her notion that theatre is not causing riotous debate. Maybe it’s because it is just not happening in the way she would like. Mind you, the final paragraph of Clapp’s review above does say the following:
This is an evening of intermittent sizzle. It intrigues rather than ignites. The idea of the project itself is more political than any particular argument. There is no real answer to the question about getting more rightwing: how could there be without statistical evidence? There is no real anti-left persuasion. Neither are there any rallying cries: Gillian Slovo suggested in one post-show discussion that people no longer feel there is a political alternative. Yet the actors bring the flying-by-the-seat-of-their-pants concentration that the visionary enterprise needs.
I’d suggest you watch the three plays embedded here and make your own mind up.