The rise of democratic theatre

As a general election looms, the case for a more democratic theatre, in which ordinary citizens have their say, is stronger than ever. Paul Taylor reports

Last Tuesday, Gordon Brown triggered a general election that will be the most unpredictable in outcome since 1992. On 15 April, the theatre company Look Left Look Right will begin previews of a new verbatim piece, co-produced with the Roundhouse and entitled Counted, in the old debating chamber of County Hall in London. It is a fitting venue, because what comes under the microscope in this work is the erosion of our sense of duty to democracy in a culture where we are told that more people voted in the 2005 series of Big Brother than in the 2005 general election.

Of course, statistics tend to be dubious. But it could well be that one of the things that has sapped the will of many people to assert their will at the ballot box is the demoralising effect of all those self-serving and sometimes downright fraudulent chances to make your wishes heard, spuriously, that are provided by reality television. Sometimes these are no more than shallow, democracy-aping advertisements for a product (such as a new West End musical) that the conveners want to flog.

Masterminded by Ben Freedman and Mimi Poskitt, who both have a background in television research and documentary-making, Look Left Look Right specialise in verbatim theatre. They began operations with Yesterday Was a Weird Day, a mosaic of testimonies culled from the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005. Subsequent work has included Caravan, in which eight audience members at a time were invited into the eponymous vehicle to hear the experiences of people whose lives had been damaged by the floods of summer 2007. The caravan set-up was no idle gimmick. Because of dodgy re-builders and the iniquities of the insurance trade, there were still 10, 000 people homeless and 2,000 in caravans when the company carried out their interviews.

"One of our shticks," says Poskitt, "is how people cope with a crisis. And Counted is how people are coping with the breakdown of communication between the public and parliament."

There is, of course, a self-reflexivity about this new project. It gives a voice to ordinary people in an attempt to explore why more people do not want to make their voices heard at the political level. "It's not an attack on MPs or on the expenses' scandal," Poskitt explains.

Two of the best verbatim writers in this country are David Hare - who tackled the privatisation of the railways and subsequent train crashes in The Permanent Way and the global financial meltdown in The Power of Yes – and Robin Soans, whose credits range from the excellent Talking to Terrorists to A State Affair. The latter (with a deliberate pun in its title) focused on the people of the Buttershaw Estate in Bradford and examined why, over 20 years, it had declined from a working class community to a drug-dependent wasteland of the underclass.

The working methods of Hare and Soans differ markedly from that of Look Left Right Left. Soans does not use a tape recorder, instead taking unobtrusive notes during his interviews and then trying to distil the essence of what has been said from the notes and from memory. As I discovered when I went to Plymouth last week to see Counted being rehearsed and developed, Freedman and Poskitt take a very different approach. The actors do not rehearse from transcripts. Instead they gather round a table and subject tape recordings of the interviews to intense auditory scrutiny. When they put a scene on its feet, they often have to hold laptops on their palms, because what has been heard – in terms of what Poskitt calls "its musical score" – may have altered during the process of listening. The agreed transcript will have to be altered as a result.

I began by being slightly sceptical – might it not be a case of refusing to see the wood by determinedly hugging the trees? But as I sat in on the deliberations that arose from a microscopically attentive listening to the recording of a multiple interview, I changed my mind. By the third or fourth time of hearing sections of the interview, my impression of the meaning of what was being said and of its import to a piece about the need to regain the instinct for democratic participation had shifted. It was like a brilliantly funny and troubling cross between a play by Alan Bennett and another by David Edgar.

The scene: a florist's in the Yorkshire town of Featherstone called Whoops-A-Daisy. ("Hello, Whoops-A-Daisy" intoned in a broad northern accent is a comic refrain.) The personnel – Roy, a 73-year-old independent councillor and mayor who was persuaded to enter local politics on the single issue of keeping the swimming baths open; Sue, his wife, 20 years his junior and torn between nostalgia for the quiet life and a proud desire to see Roy re-elected; and a friend, Colin, who feels that "as a 65-year-old ethnic English man, I've got no rights. A person coming into this country for one year has more rights. That's why I'm totally against Europe." This is why Colin voted BNP, as "a protest vote", in the European elections.

The interweaving of these three voices against the background buzz of the shop, with interruptions from customers and the phone, created a fascinating polyphonic drama with some classic, beautifully bizarre lines – as when Roy, referring to a dog, says "She's called Millie [but] she gets Gladys when he's annoyed with her". What's he got against Gladys, one wonders?

Repeated re-hearings attune you more sharply to where the emotional and intellectual emphases really lie, in a way that would not be possible if you merely took notes or transcribed the interview. For the Look Left Look Right system to work, you need, it seems, a special type of actor, as exemplified by Peter Stickney, Molly Taylor, and Jamie Zubairi, who I saw working with Mimi Poskitt on the scene.

They all have a background in developing, writing and directing as well as acting and they all have a good sense of humour which is a prerequisite for deploying swift and subtle sight- reading skills. You would not want a Rory Bremner on the case, because the object is not caricature or impersonation, although the accent is on exactitude.

Scepticism about verbatim theatre is crisply expressed by the playwright David Eldridge, who responded to my query with the remark: "It's like the reality television of the theatre, marketing its authenticity when actually such work is as subjectively edited and put together as any work of fiction." The doyen of directors in this mode, Max Stafford-Clark, put a more positive interpretation on the way that everything in verbatim theatre (from the initial interviews to the editing and shaping of the script and the performance style of the production) is inescapably filtered through various subjectivities. Stafford-Clark said: "I think a writer's task with a verbatim piece is just as complex as it is with any other piece."

Why, though, not just make a filmed documentary of talking heads? Well, for a start, in taking Counted to the old County Hall debating chamber, Look Left Look Right are making a direct engagement with the public, almost in the manner of an old-fashioned hustings. It is only by asking actors to speak on behalf of the people they portray, using words they have taken great trouble to get right, that you can point up the metaphoric aptness of this process to a show which advocates that we should all make an active difference in the choice of our elected representatives. The company ensure that typed-up transcripts of the interviews used are available in the foyer for consultation by the audience.

Sometimes, instead of a congruence of ethos, there can be an ironic and revealing contrast between the values of the acting company and those of the group under study. This was the case in Stafford-Clark's terrific production of Talking to Terrorists, where the healthy kind of close commonality (outward-looking, seeking to make contact with others) highlighted unfavourably the inward-looking compulsion to demonise the other of the terrorist cells. A filmed documentary could never convey that kind of point.

'Counted', County Hall, London SE1 (0844 482 8008; 15 April to 22 May


Talking to Terrorists Robin Soans spoke to terrorists, psychologists, politicians and those directly and indirectly affected by terrorism in order to compile a balanced debate. Interviewees included Patrick Magee, who planted the 1984 Brighton bomb; Norman Tebbit, who was injured by it; and Mo Mowlam, who spoke about her time as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Max Stafford-Clark, a leading light of verbatim theatre, directed. The pair also worked together on 'A State Affair', set on the dilapidated Butterworth Estate in Bradford, and 'Mixed-up North', Soans' most recent verbatim work, a teenage-based piece set in Burnley, where race riots erupted in 2001.

The Permanent Way David Hare compiled accounts of the privatisation of the railways from passengers, civil servants, ministers and survivors of major rail crashes. A huge hit that transferred to the National Theatre.

My Name Is Rachel CorrieRachel Corrie was a member of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement who kept diaries while visiting the Gaza strip. She was killed by an armoured bulldozer operated by the Israeli Defence Forces. The actor Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner edited extracts from her diary for the play, which opened at the Royal Court in 2005.

Deep CutPhilip Ralph attempted to shed light on the case of Private Cheryl James, one of four young soldiers to die at Deep Cut barracks between 1995 and 2002. Told through the voices of James' parents, the play probes the army authorities' claim that each death was a suicide.

Fallujah Written by Scilla Elworthy and directed by Jonathan Holmes, a purist verbatim play. Arguably one of the most in-depth accounts of the US siege of Fallujah, as journalists were banned from entering the city. The words are taken from direct speech by Iraqi civilians, US military and politicians, aid workers and the British Army.

The Girlfriend Experience Four prostitutes discuss their job. Alecky Blythe crafted the piece from recorded interviews and at the Royal Court the actors wore headphones in order to mimic directly the cadences of the recorded speech.

The Colour of Justice Richard Norton-Taylor's dramatisation uses transcripts from the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, highlighting the institutional racism of the case and the widely publicised errors made by the police in following up their investigation of the teenager's murder.

Emily Jupp

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