Wednesday, 18 July 2007

Battle of Ideas

Because it always gets buried, I've moved this discussion over from my notes in Facebook. I've also copied and pasted a few of the original comments below to get the ball rolling.

I have been asked to chair, and essentially curate, a debate for the Institute of Ideas at this October's Battle of Ideas event.

The blurb for the event reads:

Political theatre: political animal?

In the seventies and eighties British political theatre was a byword for uncompromising attacks on the Thatcher regime, capitalism, sexism and homophobia; it preached radical social change and revolution. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Communism, the defeat of the Conservatives, the rise of New Labour, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, where does political theatre now stand?

Actors perform a selection of extracts from plays covering the last thirty years to illuminate the development of, and relationship between, theatre and politics. Is political theatre the snarling political animal it once was, or has the beast been tamed? Is a fresh injection of politics needed to enliven British theatre, or might political theatre serve to enliven politics?

As this suggests, the debate will kick off with about half an hour of "clips" from relevant texts performed at the event by actors. This, by necessity, will pretty much preclude using company-based devised work or physical theatre. While such work will, and should, figure in the discussion, since they want clips performed by the same small group of actors (and short clips at that) my current list of suggestions is:

Romans in Britain - Howard Brenton (1983)

Masterpieces - Sarah Daniels (1984)

Serious Money - Caryl Churchill (1987)

Some Explicit Polaroids - Mark Ravenhill (1999)

Stuff Happens - David Hare (2003)

Drunk Enough to say I love You (2006)

My Child - Mike Bartlett (2007)

This is obviously a very partial picture of 'political theatre' and wholly ignores non-text-based and non-explicit political texts as well as revivals such as Hytner's Henry V, which, while politically freighted in production would just be Henry V if we were to do an extract, if you see what I mean.

The extracts should take up the first half hour of an hour and a half discussion, and should succeed in raising enough interesting points to at least launch a discussion which could take in the methodology, intent, and formal change and innovation in the "British Political Play".

If anyone has any thoughts, I'd love to hear them.


Ben Musgrave said...

Perhaps some better representation of writers from places other than England? For example Chris Hannan (who, incidentally, orchestrated the first ever playwright's strike), Owen MCcafferty (esp - scenes from the big picture), Gregory Burke (Gagarin Way and Black Watch)

Andrew Field said...

A little bit of an irrelevent soapbox moment but I think that the main problem with 'political plays' is that they are almost always couched within a form that is fundamentally conservative - primarily a form that necessitates a kind of polite, passive distance that while allowing Billington to talk at length about the woes of the world does little to motivate any sense of urgency or agency in its audience.

Even the experience of the auditorium, where performance becomes a monetary transaction and we are divided into different classes based on how much we pay for our ticket, is a pretty reactionary environment in which to try and offer any kind of left wing political activity.

So I guess I'm rather ramblingly saying that I really think there should be a way of showing that the really interesting 'political theatre' are possibly things like the Welsh company Brith Gof (who performed shows in abandoned factories in the 80s), Forced Entertainment and maybe Welfare State international.

Jon Spooner said...

Anything by The Riot Group. Altho personally I'd exclude Pugilist Specialist which is the least interesting because it's the most obvious and well known.

Equally, Adriano's writing a new play for the RSC company that's been doing all "the History plays". Wonder if he'd be up for contributing an excerpt. Assuming it's as politically engaged as evrything else he's written....

I'd also urge you (again) to come see Unimited's next production "The Swing Left":
It was written in 2000 by Steve Dykes in response to a lot of conversations we were having about 1997 and how we "felt like the country had finally been given back to us" and how quickly we'd been disappointed or disillusioned or any other number of dis-whatevers.

The smart thing that Steve did was to transpose those sentiments back to 1946 and the massive (and unexpected) Labour landslide in the immediate aftermath of WW2. It's good. And might be more interesting than some of those better known plays because people attending won't be able to prepare responses to its content in advance. Assuming that it doesn't immediately transfer to the Apollo.

You should also commission Stan's Cafe to do a version of Of All The People In The World to warm people into it:
A great example of how the "political" in performance can still be funny and surprising and leave room for the audience to bring themselves to the debate...

Statler said...

Definitely worth considering the Scottish dimension of political theatre such as John McGrath's "The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil" and "John Brown's Body".

I'm afraid my recent experience of Scottish political theatre may not be so easy to use - Grid Iron/NTS production of "Roam" dealing with Scottish refugees fleeing civil war in the UK, and Ankur Productions "Detainee A" looking at the impact of a terrorist investigation into a family of Scottish Muslims, but I'm not sure how avaialable scripts are for these.

Jack said...

I know we've had this argument before Andrew - but I really do think that 'what is political' has changed quite a bit - that it's far more about choice and consumption than the sort of structural thing that concerned earlier generations. And I think the best piece of left-wing political theatre of the last ten years is Copenhagen. I think it reflects on choice and poses a whole lot of questions about one of the main concerns of the left-wing of the last 50 years - namely disarmament and what we do with this thing called nuclear. It's interesting that it seems barely a debate now - and that we're all going to have nuclear power stations in our backgarden very very soon.

Oh, but when I heard Frayn speak - he denied that Copenhagen was political at all. Which is also interesting I think... He also denied there was such a thing as political theatre - which is rather confusing.

And I'd also make an honourable mention for the Hannan (nice one Ben) and also push Motortown.

Chris said...

I'd echo Jon's suggestion of Adriano Shaplin. & agree also with Andrew that there's no reason why FE shouldn't be represented, and it's hard to think of work that more effectively (and, one might argue, deleteriously) problematizes the whole category of political theatre.

Also worth considering Emily Mann or Anna Deavere Smith.

For my money, and at the risk (as ever) of being boring, the most politically substantial theatre writer of the period, particularly in relation to the structural contracts Andrew points to, is Sarah Kane, and Cleansed the most significant of her works in that context.

Also, sorry but: wot no Pinter? I'd have thought Mountain Language was hard to dispense with. And, come to think of it, Bond's Red Black and Ignorant.

But I'll stop now before I name every play I've ever seen or read or heard of.

(Though to take Some Explicit Polaroids -- which I rate highly but not for its political resonance -- over any of the above would seem amiss to me...)

Interesting question.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

The politics of Adriano Shaplin's plays are, like those of Peter Morris's, concerned primarily and almost solely with congratulating themselves for being political (which they "are" by dint of claiming the status for themselves) rather than with engaging with the world beyond the stage. Fair enough, that's one example of what's happened to concepts of political theatre.

Just looking at the dates, you have a yawning Major-years gap, and while that's good for a gag, I think it would be better to put something in there. Perhaps rather than Owen McCafferty, some Gary Mitchell.

Andrew Haydon said...

My thinking behind the initial list was quite heavily informed by the thesis I had knocking around in my head at the time: that political theatre in Britain pre-1989 - certainly in the sixties and seventies - frequently had an identifiable agenda and was committed to actively promoting a Marxist/Socialist message, with the aim of actually changing Britain politically. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War the British left has largely given up on Marxism, has abandoned revolutionary thought and to an increasing extent doesn’t really seem to have any programmatic ideology behind it, much less any real thought of changing anything.

My initial list also reflected an desire to limit the scope to plays dealing largely with Britain and to concentrate on primarily domestic policy and culture. Primarily this was just to limit the field slightly so not every “political” play written was eligible, and, like I say, to only consider plays which were “explicitly” “Political”.

All of the above partially explains why I hadn’t previously considered Mountain Language (foreign politics), or Adriano Shaplin (ditto). The “yawning gap” Shuttleworth notes was also deliberate - I was aiming for a “some plays from the hey-day of the Very Left-Wing Political Play” and then some from the post-cold war realm when the certainty about what the playwrights believed had apparently been seriously shaken.

For me Some Explicit Polaroids is pretty central, funnily enough. The whole play seems for me to revolve around the failure of socialism and the huge question with which it has left the British left. The way that even in 1999 the old-school, angry, leftie, Class War type views of Nick (the one who has been in prison) are derided by the hedonistic Russian, Victor, is a classic example - possibly the first in theatre - of this trope that uses the failure of Eastern Bloc Communism to attack Western socialism. It is interesting that the Royal Court’s recent American play The Pain and The Itch uses almost exactly the same tactic nearly a decade later to attack American liberals.

I guess the question I’m now left with, given what everyone has said, is whether I should widen the scope of the inquiry, lose the thesis per se, and look at a much wider range of political plays. I think, if pushed, the only two examples on my first list that I think are non-negotiable are Drunk Enough To Say I Love You and Some Explicit Polaroids. Maybe I should winnow down the first half. The purpose of those plays was to give examples of some of the more trenchant, firm views that used to be available to the theatre-goer. Drunk Enough... is fascinating mostly because it hasn’t moved on from that, but rather than as Churchill used to do, offering if not solutions then other possibilities, it is simply a non-stop attack on American foreign policy.

Chris said...

Ian (if you stop by again) --

Hello! -- I'm surprised by your dismissal of the political substance of Adriano Shaplin's works, notwithstanding whatever tendencies towards self-congratulation you might detect in the Riot Group's presentation of them.

What seems to me to be crucial to that work is a deep concern with the ways in which language-use shapes our social relations and pressures and constrains our political horizons. Which is the very least that otherwise traditional text-driven "political theatre" can be expected to do (and mostly doesn't).

For that reason I think "Wreck the Airline Barrier", for example, seems to me every bit as politically engaged as "Pugilist Specialist"; and why I'm reluctant to accept that Shaplin's concern is in any meaningful sense "foreign politics", as Andrew suggests.

It hardly needs saying that playwriting about (capital-P) political issues doesn't necessarily engender instances of political theatre any more than plays "about" theological struggles inspire spiritual uplift. The work has to be understood (by its manufacturers) as not merely participating in but most likely structurally endorsing the political system that gives rise to it, and proceed from there.

In other words wouldn't it be a good idea to distinguish between the "explicitly" political and the cosmetically political?

But I recognize that, judging by the blurb that started us off, that's not the conversation anyone wants to have. Not least because the kind of meaningful political arguments that theatre is at all placed to articulate simply can't be detected in script excerpts.

Much less grumpy about all this than I sound, Ch.x

Andrew Haydon said...

To address your points, albeit briefly: I guess when I talk about Adriano being "foreign politics" it's largely because he is an American (albeit one who writes plays mostly for British consumption). Yes, his use of language is iteresting, but at the same time, it is informed very much by America, and that country's playwrighting tradition, and solely in the interests of limiting the field, I initially thought I might be a good idea to exclude the US from an this particular discussion. At least the clips used to introduce it.

I think your distinction between actually political theatre and cosmetically political theatre is a good one, and in the wider world, a vital one. I guess this particular discussion looks at the transition from text-based work moving from engagement (albeit of an arguably cosmetic nature) to cosmetics.

Perhaps you're right and it would be better to look at some examples of theatre that are both properly politically engaged and also excellent, radical theatre. I suppose my interest was in looking at the real monoliths which are paraded as political theatre (at least in the mainstream). Perhaps that is too nihilistic, but I'm interested in where the mainstream has gone, not least because it infects everyone's opinion of what we all do.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

I take Chris's point about the politics of language - it's something I get periodically exercised about myself - but I'd tend to consider that as manifested in Shaplin's plays as too abstruse for Andrew's brief.

Andrew, I take your point, too, but if that's your thesis, then you need to illustrate it by INCLUDING examples of what passed for or most nearly approached "political" in the fallow period; you don't back up a position by NOT adducing evidence for it :-)

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Maybe you should bookend the selection with Churchill - and maybe the latter example should be not Drunk Enough, but Far Away. Or maybe you could use both the later examples...!

Jon said...

Ian - not the first time you've perceived a lack of sincerity in the motivations of a writer who is choosing to engage explicitly with (small or big pP) political issues and then asserted your perception publicly without bothering to engage directly with the artist involved.

You are of course entitled to your opinion, but really - there are many more worthy (and justifiable) targets for accusations of self congratulation. I would 'umbly suggest.

Being provocative (I can hear you sighing CG) - I perceive a touch of jealousy....?