At the Tate Liverpool’s Leonara Carrington exhibition, amongst the weirdly wonderful imagery where reality merges easily with magic, life with death, are various of her texts. One of them stood out for me:-
‘One cannot understand reality….there are things that are not sayable. That’s why we have art’
‘Lampedusa is a devastatingly powerful new play from the UK’s most exciting political writer, Anders Lustgarten’
Anders’ Lustgarten opens the Autumn season at the Unity Theatre in September, playing 24 September – 3 October following its run at Soho Theatre and Hightide. You can read his introduction to the play here.
The point being hotly debated was which playwright could reasonably lay claim to the title of most exciting political writer. And the answer right now is lots. A recent Sunday Observer piece, for example, carried a headline about James Graham calling him Britain’s new master of political theatre. You could of course mention many more…David Hare, David Greig, Lucy Prebble, the list goes on.
But the fact that so many writers could lay claim to such a title is clearly a good thing.
Back in 1937 the theatre which would become Liverpool Unity issued a manifesto in the Liverpool Echo.
“We are performing on a political platform not on a theatre stage…We are experimental, using mass declamation, living newspapers, documentary, improvisation – not for the sake of experiment but because what we have to say and where we have to say it demands new forms”
Here’s a more contemporary view from Vicky Featherstone;
“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.”
Featherstone is of course Artistic Director at the Royal Court which recently staged a series of plays under the banner title Revolutions, including work by Jack Thorne and Molly Davies. Davies was recently awarded the Harold Pinter prize (whose previous recipients include Anders Lustgarten) and the Unity will soon be co-producing her new play Chicken (an overtly political work) with my former company, Eastern Angles.
The Court’s revolution series is just one element of what seems to be a renewed enthusiasm amongst writers, theatre makers and audiences for political work. This is perhaps not surprising given the country is 30 odd days away from an impossible to predict general election.
So alongside Anders’ Lampedusa (which opens at Soho Theatre in the run up to the election) and James Graham’s The Vote at the Donmar there are timely revivals of Laura Wade’s Posh and David Hare’s Absence of War. The Tricycle has just finished a run of Multitudes by John Hollingworth, a play set in Bradford on the eve of a Conservative party conference. That’s without mentioning the work of Theatre Uncut, Cardboard Citizens current show Benefit or National Theatre Wales Big Democracy Project and many more.
In Liverpool The Unity itself will host a mini festival (You Decide), co-produced with Chinaplate which will run across the entire election week, featuring some of the most exciting political theatre from independent theatre makers. The packed programme includes contributions from Paines Plough, Pentabus, Coney, Nick Walker, Chris Thorpe, Dan Bye and Jess Thom, as well as four new short commissions collectively called the Ballot Box Ballads. There’s even music, or doom metal to be precise, from a band who use George Osborne’s speeches as lyrics.
Just round the corner the Everyman’s (where Absence of War recently played) Youth Theatre have just completed a run of Until They Kick Us Out, and one member Niamh McCarthy is now standing as a potential candidate, following the lead of artist Bob and Roberta who is standing for parliament in Surrey Heath against Michael Gove . Collective Encounters are working with community participants who have been affected by welfare cuts to create What if, a processional theatre piece which asks if democracy is dying, can it be saved?
No wonder then that in a recent article for the Observer Charlotte Higgins noted ‘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…..Theatre is politics, in its blood and bones’
And in a statement which clearly reflects Unity’s own origins Rod Dixon, Artistic Director of Red Ladder said:-
“Art should be recalcitrant, it should be awkward, for me, if we’ve done a good piece of work, it hasn’t answered anything — it has just raised lots of questions and provoked good conversation. Because that’s when social change happens: it isn’t the play that changes society, it’s the conversations afterwards.”
But all this is also against a background when our political elites are being increasingly called into question, where (according to Hansard Society) only 49% of us say we are certain to vote, and only 16% of 18-24 year old are certain to vote.
It seems that theatres role in exploring the problems and possibilities of our time, in (to misquote Carrington) saying the unsayable, has never been more vital. Not just in the next thirty days, but through the next five years and beyond.