Joan Bakewell: Why we need the arts more than ever

Political theatre is flourishing in the teeth, or rather the encouragement, of daily events

Share

London theatre is reeling at the moment from deep disappointment. Hopes had been high that Resurrection Blues, one of Arthur Miller's last plays would carry some final insight, some wisdom distilled from his many years as astute observer of human nature and human institutions. His status as an elder of the tribe, matched by the high reputation of the play's director, Robert Altman, suggested that some ancient-of-days wisdom might be had for a couple of tickets at the Old Vic. And we're all in need of wisdom at the moment.

Alas hopes were not so much disappointed as wrecked on the rocks, dashed to smithereens by the blistering reviews. So badly was it trounced that advertisements for the show can only muster the claim "a magnificent cast" to help boost their flagging box office. I was left stranded, holding in my hand two tickets that suddenly looked limp and unappetising where once they had promised a vigorous encounter with ideas and emotions.

I went to see the play all the same. The theatre was practically full, and thanks to the generous terms the Old Vic offers to students and schools, and the great following enjoyed by Kevin Spacey, most of the audience seemed to be under 25. The play, structurally a mess, has plenty of ideas to get your teeth into. What to do about an ageing despot struggling to restore his sexual and political power? How to respond to a charismatic and mystical leader who has seized the imagination of the peasantry? How can the modern media be stopped in its headlong rush for exclusives for which it has abundant money and no principles?

Each of these might have furnished a text for our time. Miller, perhaps sensing his time running out, jammed them all into a single and confusing play. Verdi in his final years crammed a multitude of golden tunes into his last opera Falstaff with brilliant effect. Miller fails to do the same for ideas.

We badly need some wisdom. In times when fundamental shifts of world power and politics are being played out, when domestic politics have again caved in to self-interest and sleaze, when the global environment is tipping into disaster, where are we to look for sound and reliable ways of thinking? The political world is now disgraced by self-interest and self-seeking; the church is preoccupied with arcane arguments about whether God loves gays; the market and business are rapidly taking over public services; the academic sphere is being squeezed to answer the needs of its paymasters in government and beyond. So who are we to listen to, engage with, and perhaps believe?

Step forward the arts. Not because they have the answers, but because they ask the right questions. Bad times often mean good theatre, and so it is right now. Energised by the failure of so many of our institutions, our playwrights have come out writing. Political theatre is flourishing in the teeth, or rather the encouragement, of daily events. There has always been agitprop since the politically turbulent 1960s. John McGrath's inspirational The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil of 1974 is now a classic of the schools curriculum. More recently, David Hare's 2003 play The Permanent Way unpicked the evasions surrounding a major British rail crash, while his Stuff Happens in 2004 took its title from Rumsfeld's dismissive remark about collateral damage in the bombing of Baghdad.

London's Tricycle Theatre sequence of tribunal plays, has given us dramatised versions of the Scott, the Hutton, and the Stephen Lawrence enquiries. Its recent play Guantanamo was a sell-out, playing not only in the Houses of Parliament, but around the world, well received in places as disparate as New York, San Francisco, Brazil and Pakistan. In total the Tricycle's tribunal plays have been seen by 25 million people worldwide.

These plays are often partisan: they point up critical and often overlooked points in the public discourse. They come from what's designated a left-wing direction. That's irrelevant. What matters is they are dense with ideas and they are being seen.

Now comes My Name is Rachel Corrie, a play that deftly dramatises the words of the 23-year-old American who died on the Gaza Strip in 2003 trying to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home. The play was a sellout at London's Royal Court, and is soon to reappear at London's Playhouse. But performances at its New York venue have been indefinitely postponed. I understand there is alarm that with the election victory of Hamas, the time was considered not appropriate. But when is the time appropriate for any work that challenges current thinking?

Relatively recently, Birmingham Rep caved in to rioting Sikh young men who protested at the presentation of a play, Bechti, written by a young Sikh woman from their own community. A generation of women from Britain's ethnic communities is emerging to challenge the orthodoxies of their background. Unless they do, nothing will change, the place of women will remain submissive and obedient to ancient customs.

A whole swathe of films has just won honours at the Oscars for attitudes and ideas that break the mould. Sooner or later, ideas will out. And they will always make those in authority uneasy. They will seek to ban and prohibit. That's why the Taliban are closing schools and shooting teachers in Afghanistan. Ideas are dangerous. Thank goodness.

joan.bakewell@virgin.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Our representatives must represent us

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
MP David Lammy would become the capital’s first black mayor if he won the 2016 Mayoral election  

Crime, punishment and morals: we’re entering a maze with no clear exit

Simon Kelner
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot