Joan Bakewell: Why we need the arts more than ever

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


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.

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