Theatre Uncut at the Traverse paves the way for a discussion of political theatre:
All theatre is going to be political”, says playwright James Graham in a video for the National Theatre. Even going right back to Shakespeare, any play can be interpreted politically. However, political theatre is different in that its intention is to directly interact with politics. Sometimes these plays are part of a campaign. Sometimes they are constructed to make a specific point relevant for the time, and sometimes, they are written by someone who wants to make us change how we see the world. An important tool which has been used by artists all over the world, political theatre is still going strong today, as evidenced next week in Edinburgh with the arrival of Theatre Uncut into the Traverse Theatre, and with it a student production in Space Club. But how does political theatre relate to the real world? Is it really a valuable political tool?
Political theatre connected itself to the real world in early communist Russia. It opened up a different way of seeing things in an increasingly dangerous society, with artists creating radical sets and costumes. Vsevolod Meyerhold tried to revolutionise Russian theatres from 1918, advocating a form of acting based solely on bodily expressions. He staged Vladimir Mayakovsky’s The Bedbug, which, while in rehearsal, was said to be “unmasking the bourgeoisie of today”. It criticised Communist Party members who forgot their origins and who replaced their previous values for bourgeois ones. However, with Stalin’s rise to power came a backlash against these avant-garde politics; Vsevolod Meyerhold’s revolutionary theatre began to be harshly criticised and he was executed in prison.
Amongst the censorship of the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany), plays like Christoph Hein’s The Knights of The Round Table were a way of making a political point. Hein’s production made it to the stage, using the symbolism of a broken table to represent the broken society of the GDR, which the knights are not fixing. Arthur’s son criticises his father, saying it is time for a new regime, which Arthur eventually realises. Hein’s play portrayed old leaders in a stagnant society. Although based on medieval times, its message could easily be interpreted to be a criticism of the GDR.
Today political theatre is still very successful, with sold-out productions and a stream of current writing. James Graham’s 2012 production of This House, an exploration of the dramatic events of the Labour government in the 1970s, received rave reviews. However, other poltically-charged productions, despite being mostly well-received, have been berated for their lack of theatrical tension.
Robert Allan Ackerman’s production of Strangers On a Train, comprising of two men who are both planning a murder, was deemed impressive, but wanting in suspense and insight into character. Plays with a political agenda have to be careful to still stand as plays, with a fully-fledged plot, characters and motives. Regardless of their aims in the wider social context, political plays must remain entertaining; they must retain the ‘play’ element.
Indeed, in comes a new concept from the National Theatre Wales and The Space, who are looking into illegal migration. Their theatre project, called Bordergame, explores a world in which Wales and the UK are different countries and separated by a border, and makes the audience take part in a border jump from Bristol (in NewK) to Newport (in the autonomous Republic of Cymru).
The audience must complete a journey in real life, across a simulated border, without being caught. With this kind of enveloping political theatre, though, its message is blatant, and this strategy may not be as effective as a play that was a little more subtle.
Nevertheless, as long as political theatre continues to develop new ideas like Bordergame, and pair its political causes with intriguing and fully-formed plays, political theatres will continue to flourish and hold a place as an effective political tool. They must strive to avoid being a play within politics – but politics within a play.