Saturday, 23 March 2013

Still Trying to Get Something on Political Theatre

Chasing around the internet for some images to accompany my review of Make Better Please, I came across an article by Lyn Gardner that suggested that political theatre was vibrant and encouraging some of the most exciting performance in the UK, despite a pessimistic announcement by playwright Dennis Kelly that it was a waste of fucking time.

The good news was that I had seen three of the pieces mentioned by Gardner: Make Better Please, Hitch and Crunch. The bad news is that I have no idea how to connect these as a political theatre. It isn't that the three works don't deal with politics - Hitch describes Kieran Hurley's trip to a protest, Crunch deconstructs the value of money and Make Better Please has a caricature of David Cameron running about with his cock out. There is a degree of shared style between Hurley and Crunch's Gary McNair (both are monologues), although I wouldn't push that too far: Hurley is clearly talking about events that happened to him, while McNair is illustrating a series of philosophical positions. And Uninvited Guests' Make Better Please takes about three different approaches over its two hours (nice audience interaction, heavy rock ritual and encounter-group visualisation).

If political theatre is just "plays about politics," I'm going to get into one of those situations where everything is included in the category. I remember Billy Bragg banging on about how Spandau Ballet were as political as he was - the lack of explicit political statements were a default acceptance of the status quo, and all those songs about Gold were clearly a celebration of capitalism.

I think that "the political theatre" being discussed is specifically a left-wing sympathising theatre that hopes to challenge the state. That collection of 1970s plays I got out of Oxfam was full of serious intent and detailed analysis of the various socialist movements hoping to bring down the government. They were also mind-numbingly tedious, and failed to shed light on much that has happened in the aftermath of Thatcherism. The longing for a revolution that drove (at the least the characters in) these plays was not expecting that revolution to be a right wing, capitalist one.

These sorts of plays are, thankfully, dead. While at their best (say, Comedians) they retain provocative ideas and a lively intelligence, the majority of them were too preoccupied in socialist navel gazing. It's too harsh to say that the blame for the rise of consumerism can be laid at the door of a bunch of leftist playwrights getting support from the National Theatre, they clearly failed to capture the intellectual and moral high ground. Their legacy is with the bickering and posturing of the opportunistic left.

The three pieces mentioned by Gardner are willing to show a more tentative and personal engagement with the political: McNair's style is to expose his own uncertainty, and ask questions: Hitch is about feeling a connection with protests in the past, and understanding how an alternative community could be built - either on stage or on the march. Make Better Please might be the crudest and most immediately satirical of the three, but it ends in a quiet ritual that hopes for better times.

For a determined revolutionary, all three would be too liberal: no grand call to arms and no searing and systematic analysis of the state here. McNair's subsequent political monologue - Count Me In  - is more explicitly liberal, advocating change through participation and knowledge. And while Hurley's collaboration for Oran Mor took on the London riots, Chalk Farm was as much about a mother's love as the oppression of the government.

From NTS' Ignition by Seth Hardwick
Dennis Kelly got his respect for writing stuff that fitted more in the old school revolutionary style - whether his rejection of the genre is merely the recognition that those 1970s writers failed or a more despairing shout at the refusal of humanity to pay attention, it isn't really enough to simply judge it by its apparent and immediate impact. The Trojan Women was written in response to the vicious actions of the Athenian democracy and that still thrills. In any case, theatre is about a dialogue - there are ways to judge its impact, but they probably aren't easy to find.

Of course, there is the other sort of political theatre, like Ignition. That has some smart pictures, too

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