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Putting the BNP on stage

A new wave of political theatre, just in time for the general election, eschews safe liberalism to tackle some uncomfortable issues. Claire Allfree reports

We've had death threats," says the Finborough's artistic director, Neil McPherson, cheerily about the theatre's new play, A Day at the Racists. "Emails, the odd letter, that sort of thing." He's not alone. Over at Rich Mix, in east London, theatre company Supporting Wall are fielding website invective seemingly on a near daily basis for their production of Philip Ridley's new play, Moonfleece. One website posting described the producers as "Nazis", while a recent newspaper interview with Ridley attracted online comments attacking a "liberal press monopoly" and a government that "doesn't care about indigenous working classes".

So what's going on? When did theatre suddenly get so provocative? The answer is that it's not as simple as that. Both A Day at the Racists and Moonfleece are concerned with the rise of the BNP and have both been programmed to chime with the forthcoming elections. The nature of the reaction to both is largely hysterical and unconstructive, and stems almost entirely from far right groups and BNP campaigners. Yet with a third play also opening in London this week (Tom Basden's Party, which spoofs the absence of coherent ideology in modern politics), does this signify a sudden flourishing of new political playwrighting? Or is this just a serendipitous consequence of timing that doesn't really reflect the wider picture?

"I think there's something there," says Jeremy Herrin, associate director of the Royal Court, which for 50 years has nurtured British political playwrighting. "In my mind it's got a lot to do with the death of New Labour; there no longer seems to be an orthodoxy among new playwrights. In the 1990s there was a nihilism that emerged in plays [by writers such as Mark Ravenhill and Sarah Kane] in which people were really interested in an absence of certainty. That in turn was a knock on from a sense of outrageous certainty in the 1980s where most writers could easily pit themselves against Thatcher. Today there's a vacuum; the feeling that liberalism doesn't feel robust enough to cope with the wider fundamentalism, be that religious fundamentalism, economic or the rise of the BNP. That's really interesting territory, to examine where liberalism has got us, and to ask provocative questions about what liberalism is."

That's certainly true of writer-in-residence Anders Lustgarten's A Day at the Racists, which looks so fearlessly at why people might support the BNP that McPherson is worried audiences might even consider it a pro-BNP play. "We didn't want to do a play by Guardian readers for Guardian readers. Instead we've got a play that says, well, actually, there is this whole generation of people who are turning to the BNP because New Labour isn't taking any notice of them. And you know, they might have a point."

The exploding of old political orthodoxies, in which playwrights no longer feel hemmed in by the need to advocate a crowd-pleasing liberalism, has certainly been encouraged at the Court – their latest play, Bola Agbaje's Off the Endz, about a drug dealer on a London council estate, is almost Thatcherite in its emphasis on personal responsibility and self-reliance. At the other end is Moonfleece, which is a straightforward, left-leaning plea for love and tolerance. Basden, for his part, deliberately avoided writing something that could be associated with a particular party line. Yet McPherson, who has spent ten years building the Finborough's reputation as the best political theatre on the London fringe, doesn't agree that this necessarily marks a new political flourishing. "There are simply not enough political playwrights out there, partly because so many people are writing relationship plays or child abuse plays. It's partly the age-gap. I'm 40, but all the young writers I've got were born under Thatcher. You look on Facebook and so many people define themselves politically as conservative, whereas for someone of my age, you'd rather call yourself a paedophile. The problem is, it's a very unpoliticised generation who probably hate all politicians and think they are all as bad as each other. That, coupled with celebrity culture, makes that generation quite self-obsessed, and you find a lot of young writers really struggle to mount a big political argument."

It's precisely this shrinkage of mainstream political discourse under New Labour into something bland and timid that's flagrantly satirised in Party, in which a group of clueless young idealists try and plan a party political manifesto without really having much idea of what they stand for, or indeed, actually think. "A lot of my generation are less keen to be seen as beating the drum for any particular political ideology," agrees Basden. "Any kind of extreme voice within politics has been marginalised, both on the left and the right. And with that comes a cynicism about politics among people that stems partly out of fear of being seen to support anything that could be attacked."

Which, intriguingly, is precisely the problem addressed by Lustgarten's play, about a former 1970s diehard socialist drawn to the local BNP because of their apparent sympathy for working class causes. His play, while asking uncomfortable questions about the limits of tolerant nationalism, is both about the fact that people feel quashed by the inability to air certain grievances in public, and a direct response to it. "There's definitely a feeling out there that it's become hard to even talk about issues such as race and immigration without risking being called a racist," agrees McPherson. "We've organised lots of discussions around this play; we're also taking it to Barking for one performance. What I want are plays that make people bang their fist on the table in the bar afterwards."

In a sense, then, all three playwrights are reacting to a culture that's defined by its lack of political definition, their plays stepping into the void left by apathy, ignorance and political correctness. "The BNP wouldn't have got their seats if there wasn't a larger apathy in the voting public," adds Herrin. "I think that's what a lot of this is about – there is a crisis in terms of the nuts and bolts of political engagement at the ballot box, and young playwrights are using art and theatre to explore those ideas." Even the BNP, who cling fiercely to a strongly defined party political manifesto, are often a murky and slippery political presence: Moonfleece makes the point that, while the far right may have become more vocal, they've perversely become less visible, hiding under the mantle of respectability. For his part, Moonfleece producer, Ben Monks, is frustrated that much of the responses on websites have been covert. "From the start we've tried to place Moonfleece in context with cross-party political discussions and post-show debates in London and on tour. So far the BNP have declined our invitation to take part. So there's absolutely a gap in which to debate this sort of thing, and Moonfleece is addressing that gap very directly. To quote from one of the online threads, the level of reaction online proves the need to keep creating theatre about it, and proves the need to keep discussing it."

'Party', Arts Theatre, London WC2 (0845 017 5584) to 13 March; 'Off the Endz', Royal Court, London SW1 (020 7565 5000) to 13 March; 'Moonfleece', Rich Mix, London E1 (020 7613 7498) to 13 March; 'A Day at the Racists', Finborough Theatre, London SW10 (0844 847 1652) to 27 March