Brave new world: Theatre enjoys a renaissance as state-of-the-nation dramas shine a light on modern Britain

Something strange is happening in the theatre this year. With unprecedented intensity, new plays are telling us about our lives in styles ranging from documentary socio-drama to great apocalyptic statements. Our fears are transformed into hopes in that process of joyful recognition peculiar to the experience of live theatre.

In Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem at the Royal Court, a band of wastrels and stroppy teenagers gather round the mobile home of Johnny Byron in the depths of a Wiltshire forest and listen to his new-age rant about a proposed raid on the nearby housing estate on St George's Day:

"In a thousand years, Englanders will awake this day and bow their heads and wonder at the genius, guts and guile of the Flintock Rebellion. Davey Dean will be on a ten pence coin. Lee Piper will be on a plinth in Trafalgar Square. Tanya Crawley and Pea Gibbons will have West End musicals written for them by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Elton John..."

This speech, with its mock echoing of Shakespeare's Henry V on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt, is delivered by the actor Mark Rylance in a cunning style of cod patriotic fervor and deep-seated mystical conviction. Johnny has seen the way the world has gone and wants to awaken the giants of the plain and the ghosts of the hinterland. The nation needs re-birthing.

It's this sense of a civilization wearing itself out that makes Butterworth's play so powerful: capitalism has collapsed, the nation is in debt, the pop and television culture is vapid, the politicians discredited, the local authorities despised.

As in the early 1970s, the recession is turning into a real spur for the theatre and, unlike during that earlier period, television is lagging far behind in the drama stakes. Even the new back-catalogue pop show, Dreamboats and Petticoats, is tuned to the zeitgeist: the biggest reaction of the night comes when a father advises his son that, "It's no good living beyond your means; if everyone did that, the country would go bankrupt."

When the National Theatre opened its doors on the South Bank in 1976, one of longest-running poster campaigns proclaimed, "The National Theatre Is Yours". Nobody really believed that. But in the current climate, aided by the astute programming of artistic director Nicholas Hytner, it's almost as if we turn to the NT for assistance in deconstructing our contemporary woes, just as the Greeks did in the ancient theatres of Athens.

Hanif Kureishi's The Black Album, which has just entered the NT repertoire, may not be the greatest production of all time, but the author's adaptation of his own novel, written some years after the fatwah delivered to Salman Rushdie, now seems positively prophetic in its analysis of the seeds of unrest and terrorism in urban Muslim communities of students and competing ideologues (and, for that matter, in its incidental portrait of a stuttering white Marxist who acquires another syllable on his impediment each time a communist state collapses in Eastern Europe).

The Black Album is in some ways complementary to Richard Bean's England People Very Nice, still playing in the National's repertoire, which anatomises in comic-cartoon fashion the history of immigration in this country in order to get to the point where Bean can sell the sizzle of Muslim hooligans in the East End of London without being accused of racialist partiality (although he was, of course, accused of precisely that).

Bean's savagely critical and satirical approach to the state we're in would have been unthinkable in the subsidized theatre of 30 or 30 years ago. The popular misconception that theatre should be more concerned with escapism than the real-life experience of an audience looks in tatters, and David Hare's "Defence of the New," 1996 lecture more than out of date.

Hare said then that, "It is hard to understand why anyone would choose to go into the theatre in the first place unless they were interested in relating what they make happen on a stage to what is happening off it." You might still find something in Hare's criticism of the Royal Shakespeare Company abandoning its original aim of producing the house dramatist in the context of new work on its large stages, but the case of the RSC has become almost anomalous in any overall discussion of contemporary theatre.

Instead, it's the National and the Royal Court, the Bush and the Almeida, that are holding our lives and times up to scrutiny. In September, a new play by 28-year-old Lucy Prebble, Enron, will open at the Royal Court having already garnered unanimous critical acclaim at the Chichester Festival Theatre. The play is a Brechtian epic about the tragedy of capitalism in the wake of the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York.

Enron is an American story, of course, but the demise of the seventh-largest corporation in the world in the scandal of building ever-larger wealth with wealth that didn't exist in the first place, the fantastical farce of paper money being just that, as though corporate capitalism was no different from a board game, sums up everything that's happened in our own economy.

And nothing the politicians tell us about that economy, or indeed the perils of climate change, carries as much force or conviction as a good play in the theatre. Jerusalem and Enron are undoubtedly the plays of the year so far. But there's a third that was less trumpeted when it surfaced at the Bush Theatre in west London two months ago.

Steve Waters' The Contingency Plan was in fact two fine full-length plays for the price of one, conjuring a vision of Britain submerged in floods and floating to oblivion. The cover of the published text shows Tower Bridge disappearing under the waves of the Thames.

The aptly named Waters' hero, Will Paxton, is a glaciologist advising a newly elected Conservative government on what he terms the coastline catastrophe. While the Met Office witters on about high winds and choppy waters, and politicians grab the opportunity of reinforcing the spirit of D-Day and the resilience of family values, Will outlines his long-term proposals:

"Demolish all houses that are not carbon neutral. Convert all of East Anglia to wetland as a protective sump. Carbon rationing universally applied. One car per street. Cease road construction; in fact, begin to close roads. Gear all farming land to local food production and move towards zero imports. Restructure the economy to local goods and services."

There's undoubtedly a growing realisation that in these drastic times only drastic measures will do, and that's where the theatre comes in to expand the arguments, analyse the problem and propose the alternative solutions to those meekly proffered by today's political parties, who only really care about being elected as opposed to telling or facing the truth.

Censorship used to assist in this policy of repression. In 1737, Henry Fielding, described by Bernard Shaw as the greatest practising dramatist, with the single exception of Shakespeare, produced by England between the Middle Ages and the 19th century, set about exposing in the theatre the rampant parliamentary corruption of the day.

The government promptly gagged the stage by a censorship act that was kept in place until just over 40 years ago. Fielding became a great novelist instead, and English drama withered. Now, thanks partly to Shaw's example, and certainly to the end of censorship, new critical plays are at the heart of our theatre culture and we are entering a second post-war golden age of new British playwriting in the wake of Harold Pinter, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker and Hare's own generation.

At such a time, with many of these plays at last acquiring the epic scale and complexity of the Elizabethan and Brechtian theatres, Shakespeare, too, is rediscovered: the Jude Law Hamlet, the RSC's new Julius Caesar and the Globe's current Troilus and Cressida – in which the occupying Greek forces in Troy have forgotten why they went to war in the first place – have all surprised and delighted audiences with their poetic discussion of political systems and tyrannies.

Shaw, too, sounds suddenly fresh. Peter Hall, the founding director of the RSC in 1960, has just revived The Apple Cart in his annual summer season at the Theatre Royal in Bath. One of the craven cabinet ministers in a Scottish Prime Minister's government is done up to look and sound exactly like Hazel Blears, while another is a dead boring ringer for Geoff "Ho-hum" Hoon.

The main drift of The Apple Cart, though, is not so much one of political satire as a serious and fundamental debate on the weakness of elected politicians in the face of a constitutional monarch who is far more in touch with the people than they are. It's a stunning reclamation of a play that has usually belly-flopped in the West End with star names playing the roles of a king and his mistress first written for Noël Coward and Edith Evans.

It's the times themselves that do this to plays, and as we sink in a quagmire of despair and anxiety about the way the world is going – along with our savings, our values and our belief in the ability of politics to change anything – theatre is reanimated as a sounding board in the rising tide of our increasingly important and angry national debate.

'The Black Album' is in repertoire at the National Theatre until 7 October and will then tour the country

Arts and Entertainment
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game