From Westminster to the West End: Steve Richards' mission to put politics centre stage at Edinburgh Festival
The political journalist takes his one-man show Rock N Roll Politics to the Fringe
Established as one of the most influential political commentators in the country, Steve Richards became The Independent’s chief political commentator in 2000 having been political editor of the New Statesman. He presents Radio 4’s Week in Westminster.
Saturday 03 August 2013
I am the political journalist, Steve Richards, performing live here at the Edinburgh Festival."
To be honest, this is not a sentence I expected to utter when I started out in political journalism, but that is how I open my one-man show in Edinburgh. I will utter the words 24 times this month.
The show is called Rock N Roll Politics and is my attempt to bring politics to life on a stage. Probably a few turn up expecting a rock show and are not entirely thrilled to discover that the title is a metaphor for a world in which politics is all shook up, a coalition at Westminster, a referendum in Scotland and perhaps one on Europe, above all an apocalyptic economic crisis of uncertain outcome. There is much scope for pathos and farce as our half-formed inexperienced political leaders seek to make sense of what is happening to them and to the rest of us.
While I am slightly surprised to be taking politics to the stage, I am not as taken aback as some. Colleagues and friends suggest I must be bonkers or brave, perhaps both. I can understand they respond in this way but they are wrong to do so. The theatrical venture does not raise questions about my mental state nor, sadly, is it evidence of bravery. To me the stage is as natural a way to communicate about politics as columns, broadcasting, blogging and tweeting. I have done them all and some demand far more courage and are at least as weird as performing on the stage. In terms of courage, I find it more nerve-racking pressing the 'Send' button on the laptop when a column is finished than performing in front of an audience. The written words might have been composed in splendid isolation but will appear on the internet and can be read by anyone at anytime, from a Prime Minister downwards or upwards.
Live theatre is intense but comes and goes quickly. Shortly before walking on to the stage I feel the same as I do before diving into cold water, a weird sense of fear and anticipation. Once onstage, the swim has begun and I lose all sense of anything other than the pure concentration required to keep going. In a curious way it clears the mind. Ed Balls tells me the only time his mind is purged of the daily paraphernalia is when he practises the piano as an adult beginner, the level of concentration is such there is no room for thoughts about George Osborne and the degree to which he cuts too fast, too soon. I have the same cathartic experience on stage.
To some extent the experience is similar to broadcast journalism. The words are delivered live. Then they are gone. No one questions why political journalists go on Newsnight. Why should a stage show seem like a departure?
My experience of appearing on TV shows is one of the reasons why I have taken to the stage. On TV you are lucky to get three minutes for a political discussion. My colleague at the Telegraph, Iain Martin, claims to have broken all records by appearing live to discuss last May's local elections for a total duration of 12 seconds. I doubt his record will last very long. A live performance can be the best of Twitter and a column, politics in the company of real people, an increasingly rare experience for any of us.
Each show is different, not least in the relationship with the audience. In experiencing this unpredictable dynamic, I move closer to what it is like to be a politician. Political leaders stride around the political stage with an apparent swagger that hides a sense of extreme fragility. Often they have not got a clue what will happen next. In politics and theatre the audience holds most of the power, not the performer – or at least it can decide how comfortable it wishes to make the performer.
One of the reasons I perform is that fashionable satirists have become too comfortable. Most politicians are loathed, powerless, unknown and are not especially well-paid. Some of the satirists are adored, influential, famous and rich. Yet they are the ones mocking the politicians. In some cases it should be the poor, down-trodden, elected politician mocking the lofty satirist and not the other way around.
I felt as down-trodden as leaders often do when a newspaper critic interviewed me about Rock N Roll Politics at Edinburgh last summer. "Why does a veteran journalist like you need to do Edinburgh?" he asked over a coffee that I had paid for. I replied immediately by requesting that whatever else he wrote about me, he should not describe me as a veteran and that I was still almost at the height of my youth. I repeated this several times. Subsequently, in an otherwise generous review, he referred to me as a veteran three times. I felt likef phoning Alastair Campbell for advice as to how to deal with this slight. Once more the act of perfo rming had got me closer to being a political leader, so much so I felt the urge to appoint a spin doctor.
On the whole I have had positive reviews, but a comedy critic attended the first experimental night in Soho last month and wrote with a lofty flourish that I was not Michael McIntyre. I know the cool thing is to ignore criticism. I was cool for around five seconds and then emailed the critic to point out he had missed the entire point. I am not trying to be Michael McIntyre, or an orthodox satirist, but in seeking to bring politics to life I play for laughs, partly because politics is absurd – those gaps between burning hope and disappointment, the crazy dilemmas.
The dilemmas remind me of those that used to confront Jack Bauer in the US television series 24, hugely popular at its peak. Each hour, Bauer faced agonising decisions. In one episode, he had to decide whether to save his wife from death, or save the United States. After a few seconds of tortured introspection, he opted to defend his country – not the best outcome for his wife.
Leaders are in Bauer-like situations all the time. Tony Blair once told me that each day he faced decisions that could be summarised as whether to cut his throat or slit his wrist. There were no easy answers. At one point in the show, I ask the audience to become a leader and present them with a current dilemma. They are nearly always split as to which way to go to address it. Suddenly our political theatre becomes close to real-life political drama, as leaders navigate their way through make-or-break decisions.
As they do so they make mistakes. Our current inexperienced leaders at Westminster are out of their depth as they contemplate what to do in the biggest economic crisis for 100 years. There are many manifestations of their fragility, but the most absurd is the way in which food has become a panic-inducing theme. Did George Osborne order a posh beef burger as he planned his spending review? Had Cameron and Osborne ever eaten a Cornish pasty? In these raging questions there are deep issues. Is the duo too posh? Are they out of touch? Don't they care what it's like for the rest of us? There were as many panic-stricken meetings on how to handle the Cornish pasty question in Number 10 as there were over how to deal with the related decision to cut the top rate of tax for high earners. The dietary theme is ridiculous and yet significant in its symbolism. I could fill an hour on what Osborne's beef burger has come to represent in modern politics. Come to think of it, I sometimes do.
I started performing live after giving some talks as a guest speaker on a cruise. The other speakers were Esther Rantzen and Martin Bell. Those two TV legends reminisced about their times on screen. Esther was one of the stars during TV's golden era, as huge as Bruce Forsyth and Michael Parkinson. Her talks were mesmerising. Bell was a war correspondent who risked his life a thousand times to deliver reports that were almost musical in their rhythmic intensity. I thought I would be performing to virtually no one, perhaps in the ship's morgue. To my surprise, the demand for my talks on politics was so big that I had to be moved to the largest theatre. These were middle England voters, supposedly indifferent to politics, leaving the comforting sun decks of the liner to hear about what was happening and why.
At the end of the cruise, many of the passengers suggested I should take to the road – and I have been on a Bob Dylan-like, neverending tour ever since. Well, I have not been quite as persistent as Dylan, but I perform in two of London's sparkling jewels, Kings Place and Soho Theatre. I was at the Edinburgh Festival last summer for the full run and will be again this month.
Like all forms of journalism, I learn as I go along. I always assume journalism is easier than it is. When I first started writing columns once or twice a week, it was quite a shock to discover that distinctive ideas were like gold dust, and shaping them into a structure took some doing. Few pull it off regularly and I am not one of them. On the stage, the task is slightly different. The key is the direct relationship with the audience, ad libbing according to their responses, but within a structure that needs to be as tightly drawn as a political column. The reaction of the audience at Soho Theatre varied considerably. One night they seemed to be genuinely upbeat throughout, so much so that I overran by half an hour and they did not want it to end as hands were still raised to ask more questions.
Yet the first and last nights were flatter, even though I had learnt from the experimental failures of the first night that began and ended with me dancing on stage to Led Zeppelin, a political metaphor that made me look deranged. In Edinburgh this month, I ask the audience whether they are from Scotland, England or elsewhere and change the show accordingly. One night last year, half the audience had come from Moscow. They had obviously made a terrible mistake but were too polite to leave, pretending to laugh as I reflected on the implications of Cameron and the Cornish pasty.
At Soho Theatre, the solicitous bar lady kept me supplied with large glasses of chilled wine before and after performances. Michael Parkinson once told me he kept off drink during entire runs of his series. I drank during my mini series, or at least immediately before and immediately after. The one following the performance was the highlight. For more than an hour I had been at various points David Cameron, George Osborne, Michael Gove, Ed Miliband, Ed Balls, Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn and Harold Wilson. For a few minutes I could relax.
After the drink is the most difficult bit of all: meeting audience members at the theatre bar. After filing a column for The Independent, I sit down on my own over a relaxing cup of tea. Following the live performance, I meet those who have watched it. "It was great," they all say. Very quickly I know which ones are telling the truth and those who are being polite. Hostile, aggressive responses to columns are common on the internet. Politeness is much harder to take.
'Rock N Roll Politics' is at Assembly, George Square, until 26 August
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