Political theatre's final curtain

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Despite a slew of plays tackling social and political problems, drama has lost its power to make a difference. It's time for a rethink, says Tiffany Jenkins

As sure as night follows day, shortly after a newsworthy event, a play tackling the issues raised will be staged. Most recently, three months after the riots during the summer, and three months before the official Government report on the events is due, was the Tricycle Theatre's production, imaginatively titled The Riots. The piece examined what happened as described to the writer, Gillian Slovo, building a "real-time" representation of what took place, using tweets and interviews with police, victims, teachers, lawyers and community leaders.

The Tricycle has a history of this kind of intervention. The departing artistic director, Nicolas Kent, and Gillian Slovo, were responsible for Guantanamo – Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, about the detention of unlawful combatants. There have been countless "tribunal" plays, tackling the Scott report on arms-to-Iraq, the Stephen Lawrence inquiries, the Srebrenica UN war crimes hearings, the role of women in political life – and one on Lord Hutton's investigations into the death of Dr David Kelly.

As the curtain closes another rises, and far beyond the Tricycle's doors. Last year, admittedly a general election year, there was D C Moore's The Empire at The Royal Court, about the British military in Afghanistan, as well as Laura Wade's Posh, exposing the Tories' antics at university and Oxford's Bullingdon Club. Anders Lustgarten's A Day at the Racists and Philip Ridley's Moonfleece tackled the rise of the BNP. Theatre Uncut, a series of plays by various writers, addressed the cuts; David Hare's The Power of Yes and Lucy Prebble's Enron dealt with finance capital. None of them thought that war, racism or capitalism had any merit, in case you had any doubt.

This year we have had to sit through Moira Buffini, Matt Charman, Penelope Skinner and Jack Thorne's finger wagging over climate change (it's bad) in Greenland, Philip Ralph's Deep Cut about bullying (also bad) and Sarah Helm's Loyalty, about relationships amongst political leaders during the Iraq war, at Hampstead Theatre. As for next year, the Tricycle have announced a two-part "investigation" into the history of the nuclear bomb as Kent's final production. It is unlikely to surprise anyone, preaching instead to the converted that bombs are bad. Political Theatre? No thanks. There is too much of it, and too much that is just no good.

This is therapy for the middle classes who stopped protesting on the streets long ago, choosing instead to sit in the dark, watch a political display, and reassure themselves that they are doing something. In case that's not enough, many are accompanied by lectures and conferences to ram the point home. Alongside The Riots were "Talkback Sessions", where academics and the audience aired their views, a talking cure to reinforce the consoling diagnosis.

These "about" plays script the evils of the present in an entirely uncritical way. Long gone is any complexity. A genuinely good work would play on ambiguity, tensions and difficulties, persuading you that the politician or abuser is a good person anyway. But I have yet to see any nuance. Instead, the audience goes home reassured with their simplistic prejudices. And it's all so predictably left wing. Where are the pro-war productions, or those that are anti-environmentalism, or even pro-banking? For all the talk of experimentation, not one presents a different perspective to the mainstream consensus, and never a right-wing view.

There is a long and reputable history of political theatre, of course. The German writer and director Bertolt Brecht, living in the Weimar Republic in Berlin, developed a theory that the production should instruct the audience in what he called "Epic" or "Instructive" Theatre, comparing dramatic theatre that "draws the spectator in" and "consumes his capacity for action" to the epic, which "awakens his capacity for action". Theatre should not cause the spectator to identify emotionally with the characters, he argued, but provoke rational self-reflection and a critical view of the action on the stage. In order to do so, his work highlighted and drew attention to the constructed nature of theatre.

Today, the vogue for verbatim work doesn't help this cause. It replaces an attempt to shock the audience out of their complacency by forcing them to be aware that they are watching a construction, with a focus instead on mimicry. Does he get Tony Blair right, was all I could think when I saw the performer in David Hare's Stuff Happens, as if he was an impressionist rather than an actor. But the problem is more profound than the latest writing fashion or technique.

Brecht's great play Saint Joan of the Stockyards tackled the drama in financial transactions, which made sense in the context of the growing force of class struggle. Similarly, during the 1970s, with industrial unrest bringing the country to a halt, political theatre also had bite – but even then producers and directors knew there were limitations. John McGrath, founder of the Scottish popular theatre company 7:84, argued that "the theatre can never 'cause' a social change". What it could do, he said, was "be the way people find their voice, their solidarity and their collective determination".

Today, no capacity for action is awakened because there is no appetite for it. In the contemporary context, as we live out Margaret Thatcher's motto and legacy, "There Is No Alternative", we don't believe the world can be transformed. The prevailing wisdom is that things are bad, but attempts to change the status quo are risky and a different future impossible to envisage.

In the real world, when politics has stagnated and the hollowed-out parties of left and right fight over the shrinking middle ground, and when protests – such as Occupy – look more like directionless, staged spectacle than purposeful politics, theatre is just a coping strategy that sedates us. Instead of a struggle for the future, we watch our world reflected back to us on the stage, a nation of voyeurs reassuring ourselves that we care.

It is time for an intermission. The playwrights should get down from the podium and chart a new way. Sartre, Camus and Gabriel Marcel tried to show the responsibility of human freedom by dramatising what real human beings do in the difficulties and contradictions of concrete situations. Right now, being realistic about ordinary life might be radical.

In another three months, I predict that we will see the previews of "Occupy", about the global camping protest movement. Playwrights are probably interviewing the protesters right now, in place of joining or critiquing them, of course. Must these shows go on?

Tiffany Jenkins is director of arts at the Institute of Ideas

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