Political theatre's final curtain

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
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.

    Syria air strikes: ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings

    Robert Fisk on Syria air strikes

    ‘Peace President’ Obama had to take stronger action against Isis after beheadings
    Will Lindsay Lohan's West End debut be a turnaround moment for her career?

    Lindsay Lohan's West End debut

    Will this be a turnaround moment for her career?
    'The Crocodile Under the Bed': Judith Kerr's follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    The follow-up to 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'

    Judith Kerr on what inspired her latest animal intruder - 'The Crocodile Under the Bed' - which has taken 46 years to get into print
    BBC Television Centre: A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past

    BBC Television Centre

    A nostalgic wander through the sets, studios and ghosts of programmes past
    Secret politics of the weekly shop

    The politics of the weekly shop

    New app reveals political leanings of food companies
    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Beam me up, Scottie!

    Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
    Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

    Beware Wet Paint

    The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

    Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    Sanctuary for the suicidal

    One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum