Long live the drama of the margins

Exiled from commercial theatre's embrace, Trevor Griffiths has co-opted the Great Terror to challenge today's notions of madness, identity and revolution.
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The Independent Culture
Like Edward Bond, John McGrath and John Arden, Trevor Griffiths is now in his sixties. All four playwrights always engaged with a political drama that necessarily sorts ill with a theatre whose administrators see their prime responsibility now as the delivery of predictable audiences to commercial sponsors. All four have necessarily become marginalised.

But changed circumstances do not have to mean reduced activity. When Griffiths and I enjoyed our lunchtime talk last week, he was feeling "very fragmented", having completed a TV script on Nye Bevan at 5am. A couple of hours afterwards, he was on a plane to Belfast.

Unlike his juniors, David Hare, Tom Stoppard, David Edgar and Stephen Poliakoff, Griffiths no longer has access to the stages of the National and the RSC (though of course no one has access to the National comparable with that of Hare). So his latest play appears at the Bush, where it follows a run of first works by writers in their twenties.

Griffiths is a Bush enthusiast - "I've always loved what I've seen there. It's a wonderful space and stuff that you see sticks" - and at the same time wry about the realities of once again being in effect a fringe writer. "When I first read [Grotowski's] Towards a Poor Theatre, I thought 'Well, that's an option, y'know'. I didn't realise it was the only option."

Who Shall Be Happy...? is a two-hander set in the gutted Palais de Luxembourg in 1794. The French Revolution has reached the stage known as the Great Terror. Georges Danton, that most charismatic of revolutionaries, is held awaiting his fate. But in order to foil plans to spring him, another man is held, too, a decoy who will pass as Danton. Which man, Griffiths teases, is it that we watch, spellbound?

The play was first seen on BBC2 in 1994. "It was written with a dual purpose, which I've always been interested in doing," says Griffiths. "That's writing a stage play for the screen and a screenplay for the stage." On television, the play was called Hope in the Year Two. "The BBC didn't like my title. It was thought to be archaic. I don't think I've had a single title accepted by the BBC in 26 years of writing for them. Not a single fucking title. It's like they think somehow you lose your ability to write at the point of the title. They have a greater understanding of the audience than you do. And it's so demeaning."

The Danton figure was played for the BBC by Jack Shepherd, Griffiths's longest-standing actor-collaborator. Griffiths graciously speaks up for the production's qualities, but when I suggest its degree of restraint made it more a presentation than an experience, he concedes this as "chillingly accurate". On stage he's looking for "something sweatier, much more about the passage of a night", and he invokes an old teleplay with a contemporary setting that he and Shepherd once made, Through the Night.

The play's passage to the stage was fortuitous. The Belfast-based production company Mad Cow took it up. "They saw the piece on TV. They loved it. They saw its stage potential immediately without talking to me. They rang up and came to talk to me, two young people not long out of college. And they said they wanted to do it at the 1995 Belfast Festival," which is what transpired.

"It's been hell, of course. I curse them every day for something but somehow they pull their weight. And you can't blame people for not having money. If you're doing serious things these days, it's a given that you won't have the resources. Whether it's health or education or drama."

Since the festival, the production has been fitfully on tour. Succulent possibilities of playing at an Irish festival in Paris and at the Glasgow Mayfest fell through. But a visit to Aarhus in Denmark was a triumph. "It's the first time I've experienced the continental slow handclap, which is a sign of approval, not get-a-move-on, and they got more laughter there than anywhere. I think the play is funny, by the way."

Griffiths's Belfast flight is in his capacity as director to prepare for the London opening. The Bush has a production in, and rehearsal space here is prohibitively costly. On the other hand, to be in Belfast during an election gets the old warrior's juices running. "We'll be stuck away in some arts centre but we'll get the sense of it all around us. It keeps us on the edge, which is where we need to be with this play."

Who Shall Be Happy...? eventually resolves the conundrum built into its title. The completed question is not a quote from any of the revolution's participants but a distillation by Griffiths of a number of questions about political action. It invokes Jefferson's "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". "It's a question that hovers in the American Revolution as well as the French," Griffiths confirms. "I think it's soaked in the period."

The play charts the musings of the prisoner and his game of bluff and double-bluff with his guard to whom he presents himself as an actor chosen because of the power of his stage representation of Danton. The conceit resonates satisfyingly on the way the audience perceives what they see - Jack Shepherd or, on stage, Stanley Townsend impersonating Danton and perhaps at some level becoming Danton the way actors do invade their characters. I suggest that the play is as much about acting as Comedians, still perhaps Griffiths's best-known work, addresses the politics of comedy.

"It's weird, this," says Griffiths, "but my experience of the audiences is that they're very reluctant to move into that area. They want to stay with the heroic figure, standing colossus-like astride the revolution. This is how we like our history. But there's a crise d'identite running through the play. Who is the fucker? Is he telling the truth? That's really at the heart of this piece but it's frequently not addressed by the audience until quite late in the action."

The image of acting is strong in Georg Buchner's great and oft-revived 19th-century play, Danton's Death. "It is," agrees Griffiths. "And the image of madness also comes from the Peter Weiss play, The Marat / Sade. A lot of people were locked up in asylums around Paris, some for political reasons, some mental. In one way or another, people were enraged beyond endurance by the Revolution, that it wasn't going right or that it happened at all. So notions of madness, of identity and of revolution are fused in the play and the audience has to make something of that."

Changes in the audience preoccupy Griffiths as he seeks new forms and new spaces. "What are people using theatre for now?" he asks. "There isn't a listening box or a watching box, a need to know. They've retreated from an examination of their lives through drama. In 1984 I put on Real Dreams - a play about white students trying to change the world in the late 1960s - in a white middle-class university town in Massachusetts. And I describe it as speaking in a Styrofoam cup. But I see good black plays, good Asian plays and I'm reminded that the nation is all of us and that people are fighting their corner. And that's heartening."

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