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Tiffany Jenkins: Debating political theatre

'Political theatre today should be a place of riotous debate'. Picture: TSPL

'Political theatre today should be a place of riotous debate'. Picture: TSPL

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 the Thatcher regime and 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.

 

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