Drama from the front line

Politics is back on the theatrical agenda once more - and, this time, not only in avant-garde venues. Simon Tait reports
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The Independent Culture

The face of a little girl, miserable from working 12 hours in a shoe factory and with a large tear beneath her exhausted eye, fills the screen above the stage. Below the image of the child, 25 dancers, all young, some halting from the effects of polio, others with different disabilities, some able-bodied, some British, some Ethiopian, perform a choreographed version of the horrors of child slave labour.

The face of a little girl, miserable from working 12 hours in a shoe factory and with a large tear beneath her exhausted eye, fills the screen above the stage. Below the image of the child, 25 dancers, all young, some halting from the effects of polio, others with different disabilities, some able-bodied, some British, some Ethiopian, perform a choreographed version of the horrors of child slave labour.

It is the most stridently bold enterprise to date of Chicken Shed Theatre, the professional company devoted to inclusiveness based in north London, which it hopes to set before the public in 2004. "Inclusiveness" in the company's terms usually means involving young people from all kinds of disadvantaged backgrounds in performance. Chicken Shed has been doing that successfully for almost 30 years.

The company and its children performed for the Queen Mother's 100th-birthday pageant with the Spice Girls at Wembley Stadium, and most recently shared the bill with Ricky Martin and Gabrielle at a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. But never before has Chicken Shed tackled issues such as child slavery, terrorism, the environment and disease, as its dance piece Global-Eyes does.

In its first version the piece was seen in London a year ago, but it is to take on a new and starker realism if, as it is hoped, it appears in the West End next spring. Not only will it bring the message of some of the horrific personal consequences of globalisation, it will be partly performed by the street kids of Addis Ababa - though with no Arts Council subsidy, it still needs to raise funding and organise visa clearance - which could be seen as social-exclusion issues in themselves.

The piece had to be starkly visual but also beguiling, and the result got Chicken Shed invited by the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development to make it the theme for workshops in Ethiopia, in partnership with a dance company called Adugna, which works with polio victims.

"It was the most extraordinary experience, a lesson for us all about the awful, grinding poverty and deprivation in which they live, but also about the unquenchable spirit with which they wanted to perform, and how well they were able to do it," said Christine Niering, Chicken Shed's dance director. Niering will return in the autumn with the musical director, David Carey, to create a version using their music, and hopes to bring the Ethiopian performers, all aged between 16 and 21, to London to perform next spring.

Global-Eyes represents a new generation of political theatre that is being urged by some to leave the rarified fringe venues for the general theatre circuit. This summer has already seen the National Theatre offering a Henry V that tackles head-on some of the issues of the Iraq war, directed by the National's new artistic director, Nicholas Hytner. It is a modern-dress production, with the black actor Adrian Lester in the title role. Romantic patriotism gives way to brutal militarism in a rendering thatfeatures machine guns, jeeps and embedded media.

Even at Glyndebourne, allusions to the politics of modern warfare cannot be avoided. An overtly political staging by director Peter Sellars with modern-dress soldiers has brought Mozart's Idomeneo into the 21st century. And at Shakespeare's Globe, the artistic director Mark Rylance was also inspired by the Middle East crisis to programme his entire summer season as an exploration of the concept of "regime change" through three plays by Shakespeare and two by Marlowe - Richard II, Richard III, Edward II, The Taming of the Shrew and the rarely performed Dido, Queen of Carthage. And in his first season as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Michael Boyd is teaming up with Cardboard Citizens, the theatre company of the homeless, to present a Pericles set in an assembly camp for asylum seekers.

Political theatre - drama that has a political message for its audiences - has been around since the Greeks invented it, said Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, described by one critic as the closest we've got to a permanent political theatre in this country. Brecht used classical themes as the vehicle for his social commentary. In the 1950s in this country, Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East diligently examined social issues among the working classes in a modern idiom, while in the 1960s the Royal Court under George Devine and then William Gaskill gave vent to the anger of writers such as John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, John Arden and Edward Bond.

Later, at the National Theatre, came David Hare with his furious portrayal of a carnivorous newspaper proprietor under Thatcherism in Pravda, and dissections of church, politics and the law in a trilogy, Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges and Absence of War. Interestingly, Hare is now working on a play about Labour and the public services, which is set to put him back in the front line of political theatre. Howard Brenton, best known for his 1980s play The Romans in Britain with its scandal- inducing warning about imperialism has, at least temporarily, forsaken stage scripts to co-write the current BBC1 series of Spooks, the MI5 drama, which courted controversy last week with a storyline about Muslim suicide bombers in Britain.

"I that think the best writer of political drama today isn't writing for the theatre; he's writing for television," said Brenton, and named him as Paul Abbott, creator of State of Play, also currently on BBC1, which takes on government spin doctors and big-business corruption, and Fleet Street's response to both.

Nicolas Kent believes political drama faces new challenges today. The Tricycle is famous for its eagerness to get to grips with uncomfortable subjects - recently the Nuremberg trials, Srebrenica and the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry - but he perceives new competition.

"Now political stances are taken in the press, on television, even on the internet, but what it means is that there are young writers here that have something serious to say for the first time since the writers of the Sixties, and I find that full of hope," Kent observes. "What is difficult, I think, is being able to find new ways of focusing on the big issues we're presented with today."

For Michael Boyd, it is no coincidence that both the major national theatre companies are using Shakespeare as a vehicle for comment on modern times. He and Hytner have spoken about their joint responsibilities to their audiences in a way that their predecessors never would have, and both want to encourage new playwrights to write provocative political pieces for them rather than for small venues with already committed audiences.

"We want new work that tackles these issues on the larger stage - the stage that is on the cusp of high culture and popular culture," he said.

"There are undoubted resonances between the society for which Shakespeare was writing and that of today - both are deeply divided on fundamental issues. All theatre companies, whether they are the RSC and the National or smaller companies such as Chicken Shed, should want to find ways of addressing those issues."

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