Saturday, 11 January 2014

Notes on Political Theatre

Yet, as the companies evolved, increasing frustrations with the methodology, coupled with a broader retreat from traditional left-wing politics in the UK, saw a movement towards a more traditional script-based theatre. Red Ladder, who began life in 1968 as The Agitprop Street Players, originally formed to present a piece during a demonstration: by 1974 they had produced Strike While the Iron is Hot: although this was devised through workshops, founder member Kathleen McCreey is credited as co-author. From  the early pieces - described as 'units' rather than plays - Red Ladder moved towards a socialist-realist theatre: while The Cake Play was a simple, immediate presentation of inequality, closer to 'performance art' than a scripted play, tensions caused the collaborative approach to falter. 
Richard Seyd’s The Theatre of Red Ladder, however, revealed the problems inherent in this collaborative process: dominant personalities would hold up progress until ‘those in a minority would… make the decision unanimous… just so work could continue’ (cited in Hedden and Milling, p. 106). 

John McGrath, famous for founding the socialist 7:84 companies in England and Scotland, and co-founder of the feminist company Monstrous Regiment Gillian Hanna contrasted the democratic enthusiasm of the ‘pure’ devised theatre against the skill of the playwright. 
McGrath’s 7:84 allowed a degree of group discussion – Boom (1974) was the result of an early collection of ‘the whole company… throwing in their ideas’ (ibid, p. 111) – but maintained his status as author: ‘they are skills which need aptitude, long experience, self-discipline and a certain mental disposition in one individual’ (ibid, p. 111). Hanna, meanwhile, reflected on Monstrous Regiment’s adaptation of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes as ‘a disastrous foray into the grave labelled devised writing… incoherent. Too many people had a hand in writing it’ (ibid p. 113).
John McGrath voiced his concerns about such inclusivity following a joint production between 7:84 and Belt and Braces.
There was total decentralization, a total exchange of roles… everybody could do anything on the show. It was total chaos. The gigs got fucked up because somebody didn’t tell somebody that they’d made an arrangement (cited in Hedden and Milling, p. 106).
McGrath continues with a trenchant complaint: that he wanted to make socialist, not anarchist theatre. 
British political theatre, however, drew on a rich tradition, going back to George Bernard Shaw in the early twentieth century, and had been inspired by the example of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble in the 1950s. The rise of The Angry Young Men after 1956, the continued work of Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, even Kenneth Tynan’s critical championing of the ‘engaged’ play against the absurdists: these provided the context for the rise of political theatre in the 1970s. 
Playwrights like Howard Brenton and Trevor Griffiths mused on the ideologies and failures of the left – even Sir Laurence Olivier found himself as a leftist patriarch in Griffith’s The Party. By the 1980s, David Hare was writing for the National Theatre and the radical fringe companies of the early 1970s were integrated in the mainstream, receiving Arts Council funding (1973 for Red Ladder, while both incarnations of 7:84 folded after funding was withdrawn).

Yet the experiments of the 1970s remain crucial for the examination of how devised performance can, through its processes, embody political ambition. The influence of the American radical theatre – companies like The Firehouse Theatre, The Living Theatre and the San Francisco Mime Troupe (who went as far as helping Black Panther Eldritch Cleaver escape arrest) – encouraged consideration of how political theatre could engage audiences (The Agitprop Street Player’s The Industrial Relations Act was performed at a demonstration in Hyde Park, echoing the ‘guerrilla theatre’ of Ronnie Davis from the SF Mime Theatre, which included practical skits teaching passers-by ‘how to stuff the parking meter’ (cited Sainer, 1975). And in the difficult conversations that frustrated McGrath, there was a genuine attempt to consider how a collaborative creativity could operate. 

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