It is a largely male cast. Raked seating flanks a thrust stage, and from time to time people leap up from the rows of benches to shout out their lines, as if they are audience and actors both. All is loosely controlled, it seems, by a man who sits on a kind of throne. There appear to be two protagonists. They quarrel noisily with one another. The chief of these sometimes emphasises his point by removing his spectacles and brandishing them. He leans with masculine threat on a highly decorated wooden box that sits on a table. The other also has a box to lean on, but does so with less sense of virile assurance. In front of the boxes on the table lies a golden staff, seemingly an object of some significance. All of this carries on over a steady background of noise: exaggerated laughter, hoots and honks, cries and shrieks expressive of agreement, or disagreement, or derision, or spite. It is compelling as ritual, though the script can appear thin and hackneyed.
The debating chamber of the House of Commons resembles a theatre; it is a “place for looking” (theatron). Since the televising of proceedings in 1989 it has had, at least potentially, the whole nation as audience; MPs have had to remember to compose their faces when they are in shot. We may find ourselves cynical at the yelling and point-scoring – more panto or pub brawl than Shakespeare. Nonetheless, it is people engaged in dialogue. It is debate; it is conflict; it is spoken; it is embodied; it is enfolded in ritual by virtue of the space it inhabits, the objects that are associated with it and by a meticulous ordering of proceedings. Politics is theatre.
It is surely because politics and theatre share so many qualities that, of all the artforms that are now reflecting back to us the world that we live in, it is theatre that is most adroitly and directly addressing its politics (though of course it would be naive to suggest that any artistic gesture is entirely untinged by the political). Unlike music, dance and visual art it is theatre’s wordiness – the fact that it likes to place people in a room and have them talk, and disagree – that makes it the artform most closely allied to politics. And compared to other “talky” artforms, TV drama and film, theatre can react to events in the world quickly and cheaply, and has fewer gatekeepers, commissioners and funders to become anxious on its behalf. Unlike poems or novels or essays, consumed, for the most part, in private, theatre involves bodies on stage performing mimetic actions in front of its audience, who are also there, in person. Theatre is the particular artform that shows us people doing things and asks us to reflect on these actions: the word for “doing” in Greek is “drama”. In addition, theatre’s rituals require something more than a casual engagement from its audience. Playwright David Greig says: “Theatre is where we gather in one place to go through something together in an activated, listening mode. And then you go out with your pals and talk about it afterwards. Fifty per cent of the play is watching the show; 50% of it is its echo.”
Politics runs through British theatre quite naturally, from Shakespeare’s uneasily lying, crown-wearing heads to David Hare’s activation of the debates on the invasion of Iraq and Laura Wade’s skewering of the entitled establishment in Posh. Now, as a general election approaches, theatre in Britain seems especially alert to politics and the political. Even the night of 7 May itself is the subject of a drama, James Graham’s The Vote, set in a polling station during the two hours before it closes. On election night it will be played on the stage of the Donmar Warehouse in London in real time, and broadcast simultaneously by Channel 4. Graham himself has been one of a number of playwrights and artistic directors who have taken on politics directly in recent years. He is author, too, of the celebrated This House (2012), set amid the hung parliament and tiny Labour majority of 1974-79, and Privacy (2014), which took a line of thinking about the politics of mass surveillance and extended it to consider how, in the Facebook age, we consider the self.
Like The Vote, Privacy was directed by Josie Rourke at the Donmar, where she also recently staged Coriolanus. She says that these productions represent, for her, a trilogy of approaches to democracy, “exploring similar ideas through different apertures”. Last year at the Almeida theatre, Mike Bartlett’s play King Charles III speculated on what would happen if a restive and interventionist successor to the Queen refused to sign off a piece of legislation. This winter, the Royal Court staged a play called Hope by Jack Thorne about the local authority cuts handed down by communities secretary Eric Pickles: a surprisingly uplifting drama, with Paul Higgins playing a deputy council leader assailed by civic dilemmas. At the Tricycle theatre in London, its artistic director Indhu Rubasingham is directing Multitudes, John Hollingworth’s play set in Bradford on the eve of a Conservative party conference as a liberal British Muslim prepares to deliver a speech; his partner is a convert to Islam and his daughter is a radical. Southwark Playhouse recently staged Juliet Gilkes Romero’s Upper Cut, about the politics of black representation in the Labour party. These plays are simply a handful (staged in the city where I live, London) of those that have recently put politicians or the political process on stage – the most limited definition of the idea of the “political play” available.
Theatre is politics, in its blood and bones. In Athens, its birthplace, theatre was deeply entrenched in the religious and civic calendar of the city-state. This was a talkative city – where Socrates acted out philosophy through talking with people he encountered in the streets, and where Plato memorialised his teacher’s thinking in texts written in the form of dialogues. (Virginia Woolf wrote of the younger man’s “dramatic genius”.) After the reforms of Cleisthenes in 508, it was a radically democratic city. Free men, a quorum of 6,000, were entitled to vote on detailed matters of state in the assembly, held normally on the Pnyx, a hill not far from the theatre of Dionysus, which itself stood on the southern slope of the Acropolis, hunkered down beneath the great temple of Athena. Anyone, provided they had served two years in the military, could speak in the assembly (though veterans of open meetings will know that in such situations, those with the confidence to do so tend to be a self-selecting group). Rhetoric, the act of persuasive speech, was the great Athenian skill and the route to political power. Open-air, noisy, talk-filled gatherings were part of life, if you were born a free man; the streets and squares of the city were a kind of stage. In Republic, Plato has Socrates speak out critically about this urban, verbal rough and tumble. He describes the people of Athens “in the assembly or law court or theatre” and “the boos and applause of their criticism or praise (excessive in both cases) of whatever is being said”. He asks: “How do you think a young man’s heart, as they say, will be affected?” Don’t you suppose, he adds, that such a listener will be “swept away at the mercy of the current?”
The assembly, the law court and the theatre were, this passage tells us, activated alike by persuasion and emotion: powerful and dangerous things. They were also activated by intellectual deliberation and decision-making. This quality of deliberativeness was, as Edith Hall points out in Greek Tragedy (2010), regarded by Aristotle as a vital constituent of theatre. Though all surviving Greek tragedies except one were set in the deep (and pre-democratic) past, scenes of political decision-making run through them – from the dramatisation of votes being cast in The Eumenides, the last play of Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy, to Antigone’s determination, in Sophocles’s play, to bury her brother’s body (and her uncle’s decision to punish her). The members of Athens’s state council (the 500 men, selected by lot, who haggled over the detail of policy) witnessed this fictional deliberation from the best seats: the front rows were allotted to them. Plenty of Aristophanes’s comedies, which were set in the contemporary world, satirise or otherwise evoke the political process: in Ecclesiazusae (which you could translate loosely as “Women in Parliament”), the lead character Praxagora rehearses a speech she is planning to give, disguised as a man, in the assembly – metatheatrically transporting the audience across the city to the Pnyx.
Just as democracy in Athens was radically participatory – mass voting, important positions of state chosen by lot – so was its theatre. Over the 70‑year span of the Greek tragedies that survive (472-401BC), the men who made the plays (producing, writing, performing them) were members of the Athenian public, and many of them what we would call amateurs. Hall calls it “community theatre”, noting that “many of the spectators would have performed in a tragic chorus at some stage in their lives, probably when they were young men; numerous others would be proudly watching one of their brothers, sons, nephews, grandsons or neighbours performing”. At the annual Athenian festival, the Great Dionysia, three tragedians presented work (a trilogy each plus a rumbustious “satyr play”), as did five comic authors (a play apiece).
This was not some archaic version of the Edinburgh festival or Latitude: it was deeply embedded in the heart of state politics, imperialism, warfare and religion, in ways that we might find unfamiliar or uncomfortable. The festival was timed according to the start of the sailing season, so that Athens could welcome her allies. At the start of the festival, Dionysus, the god of wine and theatre, who sent you “beside yourself” and thus, perhaps, capable of taking on the characteristics of another person, was ritually reintroduced to his theatre, supposedly re-enacting his first journey to the city from the village of Eleutherae on the Boeotian border.
The next day came a procession, led by a virgin girl. Men carrying Dionysus’s ritual phalluses brought up the rear; the metics (resident foreigners) joined the procession dressed in red. Sacrifices were made at the various city sanctuaries. Hall writes in her new book, Introducing the Ancient Greeks: “The sanctuary of Dionysus must have resembled a massive sunlit abattoir attached to a barbecue. It would have resounded with the bellowing and beating of frightened animals, been awash with their blood, and reeked of carcasses and roasting meat.” The theatre itself, before the plays began, was purified by libations made by the city’s 10 generals. The revenue accumulated by Athens from her imperial possessions was displayed to the audience and, during the Peloponnesian wars, suits of armour were ceremonially presented to the sons of the war dead. And then the plays began: four plays in a day from each of three tragedians, and comedies (the performance patterns of these varied over the years). Judges, who had been selected by lot from across the cities’ demes (villages or districts) made their choice and the victorious playwright was crowned with ivy and led in procession to a noisy and drunken party.
So far, so unlike a night at the local rep. Nonetheless, theatre, however faintly, still retains the lingering and ineradicable sense that it is the civic artform par excellence. No art that is made can avoid reflecting its time and the particular political, social and economic circumstances of its making. Theatre, however, is the artform that does this most easily and consciously. Tragedy, Aristotle wrote, arouses pity – meaning the ability to feel from another’s perspective. Politics, at its best and most powerful, is also about empathy and pity, asking us to think about not just what is right for me, but what is right for the community – for the polis.
Politics as a subject for plays comes and goes. At the moment, playwrights and artistic directors seem especially keen to mount plays that deal with political life, and audiences keen to absorb them. Why should this be? It is perhaps, as much as anything, to do with a youngish, newish generation of artistic directors – among them Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court and Rufus Norris, about to take on the National Theatre – for whom political awakening came under the prime ministership of Margaret Thatcher, and whose programmes suggest they are people for whom politics is not something to be left at the door of the theatre when they come to work. Norris describes the theatre that he is about to take over from Nicholas Hytner as “the national debating chamber” – as it has been under Hytner, whose own productions of the classics, in particular, tended to speak to the political moment (his first, Henry V, in 2003, made much of convoluted justifications for making war, for example, and his Hamlet, 2010, emphasised Elsinore as a heavily surveilled society). Norris believes it is an entirely natural process. “This is a centre of creative self-expression,” he says of the National, “and it is inevitably political if people care about what they are saying.” Theatre took on a particular role during the Scottish referendum: for example, the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Great Yes, No, Don’t Know Five-minute Theatre Show took place on 23 June, in the runup to the 18 September vote, in locations around Scotland, consisting of plays – many written by non‑professionals – exploring the ideas about Scotland’s future. Featherstone, founding artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, says: “If you believe that the theatre is a place to ask questions about the world we’re in – and potentially make changes – the work is always political.”
Perhaps there is something else going on, too. Public discourse at the moment seems especially fraught and especially narrow. The broadcast political interview seems caught in an ever-decreasing circle of aggression in delivery and timidity in content. The editor of the BBC’s Newsnight, Ian Katz, wrote last year in the Financial Times that “for the most part interviews with frontbenchers are an arid, ritualised affair: interviewer suggests politician’s policy or position is flawed/inconsistent/unfunded; politician denies the charge/ignores the question/suggests that real people in his or her constituency care about something different. They repeat this a few times, typically for somewhere between four and 10 minutes. The interviewee considers it a success if he or she hasn’t said something that will attract the ire of their party’s PR capos. The interviewer considers it a success if the exchange has produced ‘a line’, though more often than not it will be the line the politician came to deliver.” There is no room for doubt; no room for acknowledging that the other side might be half-right. Nuance is stamped out and hesitation is interpreted as weakness. It is often said by Westminster journalists that individual politicians – Ed Miliband, say, or George Osborne – are intelligent and penetrating conversationalists in private. Switch on a microphone, however, and all this is ironed out to flatness. Meantime, since the rise of Twitter, the stakes for public discourse have become higher. Our digital public space – though it can also bring enormous benefits – can feel frightening and dangerous, as the virtual bullies, like so many Furies, gather to punish verbal wrongdoing, actual or perceived.
Occasionally the political interview or confrontation provides its own excitement, if you like watching a scrap, and particularly explosive interviews might reveal intriguing aspects of a politician’s character by way of collateral damage. But the content, as opposed to the delivery, is often unilluminating. Some politicians understand and accept this. Earlier this year Miliband said: “Watching me and David Cameron shout at each other once a week on prime minister’s questions isn’t very enlightening for anybody, let’s be frank about it. It probably massively puts people off politics … I’m not sure it’s made much difference to the sum of human knowledge.” Thus a tiny chink appeared in the political fourth wall. It is not theatre but politics that can sometimes seem to exist in a parallel, unreal universe. In this universe of politics, only certainty can be expressed. And yet everyone knows that certainty, where it exists, is dangerous; in practical terms, it is usually a flight of the imagination.
What theatre has that politics lacks is a quality of the uncanny. The fact that the person before you has (usually) adopted the characteristics of another already means that the experience of it is pushed away from certainty. In the first tragedy that survives – Aeschylus’s The Persians – the Queen of Persia summons, with incantations, the ghost of the former king, Darius. Perhaps all theatre retains the faint trace of this notion of raising spirits, the spookiness of the lifting on and taking off of a personality and a mask. Another way of expressing this is to say that theatre is first cousin to poetry (they share a grandparent in the epics of Homer, which are both poetic and dramatic). Theatre, like poetry, is not a form that flourishes under conditions of certainty. It prefers ambiguity and questions. It prefers metaphor and curious connections. It is, in this way, simultaneously uncanny and true to life.
Politics in theatre goes way beyond plays about politics. When Phyllida Lloyd directed women-only productions of Julius Caesar (2012) and Henry IV (2014) at the Donmar, she was making a political statement about the fact that theatre itself, though the most humanly representative of the artforms (in that it involves people doing and speaking in front of other people) rarely accurately represents the Britain that it purports to show. Her all-female casts were the most obvious quality of the productions, but, in fact, the company was also racially diverse, drawn from a variety of social backgrounds, and contained women of various body types. “Who is there on the stage can be as much a provocation as the text itself,” she says. She has now undertaken not to direct work in which women form less than half the cast. This has changed the nature of her career. “I’ve had to walk away from plays in development where I haven’t felt it was my right to ask the writer to write differently, and it has almost collapsed my relationship with opera,” she says.
What, for me, was remarkable about watching the productions was not only the way the actors seemed unlocked by the huge, generous Shakespeare roles they could at last take on, but also the carelessly expansive way they occupied space, physically. I hadn’t truly seen before how much room men take up; women minimise themselves. Lloyd acknowledges that playing to small audiences in London’s most exclusive theatre is unlikely to cause a revolution. The real power, she says, is in taking the work into prisons and schools, and not on screen but in person. “A call to arms is always going to be more potent in the flesh. Why do MPs knock door to door?”
At the Lyric theatre in Hammersmith, London, Sean Holmes, the artistic director, has recently come to the end of a season in which he worked with the same ensemble of actors. Announcing the experiment in 2013, he said: “With a company split equally, there will always be five women and five men on stage. There will always be black actors on stage. There will always be a disabled actor on stage.” The point was both political (about representation) and artistic (the predetermined ensemble prevented them, or rather freed them, from interpreting texts literally). In reality, the two aspects were inextricable.
There is a young generation of theatre artists for whom art and politics, or art and activism, have cohered. Harry Giles, who is based in Edinburgh, says that he is “sceptical about the category of artists and activists”, for “everybody is engaged in political and creative acts, every day”. One of his recent works is titled Everything I Bought and How It Made Me Feel – a stage show drawing on a year-long blog in which he catalogued all the purchases he made and the emotions he experienced on doing so. He believes theatre can change people, in that it can “be part of a person’s means of liberation from one form of oppression or another. It is about awareness; it is about feeling”. Slung Low is a company in Leeds that grows its own vegetables, in compost reclaimed from a former marijuana farm, in old baths donated by local plumbers. (Hot vegetable soup comes with entry to shows under the chilly railway arches, which are “pay what you can afford”.) After the election it will mount, with Sheffield People’s Theatre, a show called Camelot: The Shining City, a reworking of the King Arthur story, which will examine what it means to be English. It will be performed in the open by 150 members of the community, using a mythical story from the past to illuminate the present. It sounds, just for a moment, very Greek.
It is possible that an inquiry about political plays is really, in the end, an inquiry about form: that the political in theatre lies at least as much in its structures as its content. In any case, as the artistic director of the Almeida, Rupert Goold, says, many “political plays” in fact suffer from the same ills as the politics they describe. In other words, they provide only a comforting certainty; they are “chillingly normative, bracingly confirming what the audience thought they believed – that the financial sector needs punishing; that climate change is bad”. At the Royal Court, Zinnie Harris’s new play, How to Hold Your Breath, is political in its content, in that it considers mass migration and the breakdown of societies after economic collapse. Perhaps its most sharply political quality, however, is that its central character is a woman (played by Maxine Peake) who holds together the geography and architecture of the play, whose domestic and sexual arrangements the audience is invited to accept and not to judge, and who is, in a sense “everyman”. Sarah Kane’s play Blasted (recently revived as part of the continuing Sarah Kane season at the Sheffield Crucible) was widely interpreted at the time of its premiere in 1995 as being “about” the war in the Balkans. But what is even more striking than the ugly and strange things that happen in the Leeds hotel room in which the play is set (rape, a baby being eaten) is the manner in which the whole dramatic structure of it comes crashing down. Having become verbally more and more terse, it ends with a series of short, fractured scenes: the text at last seems unable to carry its own weight, as if the world is falling in on itself.
Or take Caroline Horton’s recent Islands, premiered at the Bush theatre in London. The play is about tax havens, and was running the week that the HSBC tax avoidance scandal broke. But instead of presenting a well-made, explanatory-condemnatory drama, she created a messy, chaotic and sometimes unpleasant work that instead expresses the moral ugliness of tax evasion – the real, exploitative horror that lies behind the elegant business suits and clean, light offices that mask the practices in question. It was rude, scatological, tasteless, funny, and in many ways, not at all enjoyable. But its echoes have stayed with me.
Perhaps the most politically radical thing theatre is doing, this spring of 2015, is not airing the issues of the day, but insisting its audience sit in a place, with our fellow humans, watching other humans doing and speaking, being moved to pity and fear. And insisting its audience do so, furthermore, without recourse to email, Twitter or Facebook, without, for a span of time, contributing to the algorithmic churn of Google. That, maybe, is the small, true act of resistance that all theatregoers undertake.
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