Oct 20, 2007

A New Political Theatre

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Festival comedians John Oliver (he of sitting near John Stewart being English fame) and Andy Zaltzman (he of the big ginger hair) created an event called Political Animal, a late night political stand-up show at The Stand - Edinburgh's premier comedy venue. On its first night featured Perrier nominated Reginald D Hunter and the legendary Mark Thomas. I have rarely seen the place emptier. At one point John Oliver had to ask a friend of mine to laugh less, as it was kind of awkward in the otherwise mood-less room.

The moral of this story is Politics (unlike, say, Hitler or Michael Ball in a dress) does not sell.

I'll be interested, therefore, to see how many people struggle out of bed on a peaceful Sunday morning to attend a debate on Political Theatre - "What is it? Where has it been? Where is it going? Why on earth does it exist?"

I would love to go but alas fear that the only way to get in is by purchasing a ticket to a whole day of other events with dauntingly earnest titles like "what does music mean" and much as I am a sucker for a good debate on the nature of political theatre (especially one involving the omnipresent Andrew Haydon), the thought of spending 10 lunches on it (Unlike Prufrock, I measure out my life in deli sandwiches) does put me off a mite. So maybe someone could just drop them this note (an expansion of something I said to Mr. Haydon at some point but the link fails me):

For me, Political Theatre (or rather, plays about politics, which are what will be being read as part of the debate) is a curious contradiction; a revolutionary fist in a silk glove, a class warrior in a tailored suit. But then considering the grandad (or at least the overbearing uncle) of a lot of modern political theatre was the best kind of fine-dining California Marxist, maybe that's unsurprising.

I believe form is as important as content. And I believe that any radical political message a play might contain is neutered by a form I think is bourgeois and outdated.

Without sounding alarmist, I think we are fast reaching a point where our own complacency is placing democracy in crisis. On the simplest level, no one is voting. A system of government that relies on the the will of a people who aren't willing to engage with their system of government is, implicitly, in crisis. But then, maybe our system of government has always been in crisis - you can certainly draw a line from the rotten boroughs of 200 years ago to a few over-influential swing seats being flooded with millions of pounds of attention by one of the hundred richest men in England to win them for his party. Meanwhile people are being tortured in secret prisons on British soil, we can't protest outside our own parliament and we continue to be joined at the hip to one of the most shamelessly hypocritical and staggeringly inept US governments of all time.

What we need is change, not a change of government - we thought that would work last time but things have turned out pretty much the same. What we need is wholesale change on a local not a national level. We need a re-engagement with our communities, a re-establishment of our own ability to be involved in political change and a renegotiation of how we are governed and by whom (and for whom). We need to stop being told what to think by the omnipresent mouthpieces of dubious moguls. We need to remind people what activity means.

All of which does not need to be done by means of a lecture. Quite the opposite - we've had enough lectures, we've had enough debates - we need to get people on their feet.

Which brings me to theatre. Theatre can do all these things. But often it doesn't. Often theatre isn't about a re-engagement with our surroundings. Its about sitting in a darkened room as cut off from where we are as possible (which is what made the Camera Obscura moment in A Matter of Life and Death so wonderful - it suddenly reminded you exactly where you are and what you are doing). Often theatre isn't about the audience's potential to be active and involved. It's about making them as passive as possible, quiet, anonymous imbibers of whatever the person who wrote/directed the show wants them to see. Often theatre isn't about renegotiation
of anything. It's about one person telling everyone else what they think. The stage is a platform. The stage is a television screen. Michael Wynn says,
It is the interaction between the stage and the audience that makes theatre the perfect medium for political debate, discussion and ideas. It is live and interactive, and in some ways the audience can drive the play.
But I don't see liveness on a lot of stages. And when it comes to politics, when the writer is the major creative force and he's not even in the building, there's not a lot of room for interaction.

Even theatre buildings have their own politics. Most of them are great bastions of bourgeois values, ampitheatres for displaying and admiring, where people are sorted and classed, where the more you pay for your ticket the better view you get of the action.

I find that too often the radicality of a play's message is undermined by the form in which it is delivered. That form should be as dynamic as that which is being said. It's not always about telling. As in dreams (where we believe ourselves to be moving and yet it is all in our head), doing can be a form of thinking. Effective political theatre will have the audience as its central creative force. It will be outside of theatres. It will be engaging with an environment and the people who inhabit it.

Let's not celebrate the mundane politics of the Tricycle or the hollow laughs of the satirist. Look to the work of Augusto Boal, who staged impromptu political debates in restaurants and who later used theatre as a form of government, as a way of working through problems and coming to solutions. Or closer to home, the work of Jeremy Weller and the Grassmarket Project, devising shows with the homeless, the disenfranchised - not as social work but as a means of creating electrifying, inclusive theatre. Look at Brith Gof's incredible site-specific installations, engaging people in a very physical sense with Wales' dying industry. Look at the work of Welfare State International, their incredible all-embracing lantern march through the streets of Glasgow, what Baz Kershaw sees as a model for a reimagined governance; inclusive, flexible, organic, in which the local and the personal can exist and flourish within a larger project.

None of this may necessarily be describable as political but for me it is theatre's most significant and most vital challenge to the way we are governed, and the way we live.

Oh, and in other news, Dumbledore is gay.


Chris said...

Brilliant post, Andy. Every syllable of it is exactly right. Bravo. x

Alison Croggon said...

Check out my (and other's, I very carefully didn't describe it) responses to Jerome Bel's The Show Must Go On, which was on last week at the Melbourne Festival. Wonderful stuff. And what I call political.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I'd be interested to hear what you made of The Blacks at Stratford East. It's not the sort of thing that's normally my bag at all, but when I went I heard the sound of an audience being quiet, which is thrilling anywhere but in Stratford East it's fucking miraculous.

alexf said...

Great stuff Andy - although to stick up for ol' BB, it's not his fault. I simply don't see the lineage between his work and the sham theatre of Political Theatre we have today. In fact much of what you say here is pretty close to what he was saying back in the day. That's a compliment, btw.