Friday, 8 March 2013

Thinking about art and politics (meh, I guess)

Back in 2011, during an early attempt by Arika to revitalise the festival format, a weekend at Tramway ended in a broad discussion about the relationship between politics and theatre. Disappointingly, the argument eventually boiled down to competing versions of Marxist theory: the "aestheticisation of politics" was castigated as a fascist trick, while performance was only considered political if it furthered a limited vision of revolutionary potential.

Arika's bold decision to give as much weight to discussion as the actual events can't be blamed for this degeneration: later festivals have encouraged further analysis and the jargon of Marxist dialectic has been questioned and critiqued. The debate, however, harks back to a lazy assumption that political theatre needs to be explicit and left-wing - the arts tend to attract leftists, perhaps because all art depends on a collective effort, or relies on state funding.

Unfortunately, this assumption denies something that even the British government has tried to emphasise: all social activity has a political dimension. The act of gathering together for a communal purpose is shared by religious ritual, political demonstration and live performance. Yet it is only in the last that a genuine diversity of opinion is encouraged. Making and attending theatre are equally political in nature.

Twentieth century political drama is overshadowed by Brecht. He wrote some nifty plays that critiqued capitalism, and developed theories towards a revolutionary theatre. While the USSR was juggling ways to set the arts at the service of international communism, surprisingly settling on ballet, Brecht was looking at ways to engage an audience in a manner revolutionary. The whole fourth wall issue was effectively defined by his thoughts.

However, art does not need to be leftist to be political. In fact, to say that it does undermines the political subtext of most theatre. Shakespeare wrote propaganda pieces for the state (The War of The Roses is more or less filtered through Shakespeare's version, even down to the physical appearance of one monarch), and the representation of mental health in Takin Over The Asylum, especially in the light of the ATOS controversy, has a very serious political implication.

Politics in art becomes not so much the product of an author's intention, as a function of the audience's interpretation and the context of the production. Any event funded by the state, say through Creative Scotland, has already made political choices. An interesting parallel is Nic Green's decision not just to make work that discusses ecology, but to consider the environmental impact of all aspects of its creation.

Arika's encouragement of reflection is beautiful. It not only hands theatre back to the audience - in the areas it covers, the artist is already privileged enough - but recognises the fundamentally public nature of performance. It also accords with the inclusive tendency in contemporary performance which tries to offer the audience a more immediate engagement. Whether it is the conversational one-to-ones of intimate theatre, the introduction of computer gaming to the NTS' Let The Right One In or the lively community work of Ignition in Shetland, theatre has become far more interested in getting the spectator involved.

Traditionally, theatre has been divided into community and professional categories. Through companies like Ankur, and the ambitions of Toonspeak, this line is dissolving. For the majority of artists, the work remains their project, however collective the devising. Yet once the idea of public engagement is more clearly established as integral to theatre's purpose

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