Difference of opinion: the many faces of political theatre

This article is from 2018

Difference of opinion

Rhinoceros / credit: Beth Chalmers

After Trump and Brexit, political theatre has become a serious concern. Does it remains an effective medium for change and public discussion of ideas, or is it just a liberal echo chamber?

Politically engaged theatre has been a powerful presence throughout the past century. In his absurdist Rhinoceros, Ionesco famously transformed citizens into rhinoceroses to call out political complacency, while Brecht was similarly motivated to trigger social and political change through his work. Mother Courage and her Children, written in 1939, notably draws comparisons between the Thirty Years War (1618–48) and the contemporary political situation in Europe.

At this year's Fringe, activist and performer Mark Thomas uses the thought of his own demise to explore the current state of the health system in Check Up: Our NHS at 70. 'The great thing about theatre is that people get to see things from other people's viewpoint and, when they do that, they get to experience empathy,' says Thomas. By comparison, Miguel H Torres Umba was inspired to create Stardust in response to the racial caricaturing he experienced as a Columbian, through the country's association with the cocaine trade. 'The piece intends to generate a strong emotional connection, inviting them [the audience] to actively engage and play an active part in the search for change.' For Thomas, empathy and shared experience is the means to emotional release and contributing to the debate; but ultimately, theatre remains an outcome in itself.

Lucy Burke's approach is to make the audience more active participants. In WEIRD, she uses her own experience of obsessive compulsive disorder to educate and lessen the stigma around mental health conditions, but also to raise money for the OCD Action charity with a bucket collection.

For Burke, success relies on the combination of the emotional with the practical. 'I feel like the bucket collection is the most tangible way that I can do my bit to contribute,' she explains. 'The money will be given directly to the charity, the charity will use it in some way to fund their work, therefore by donating, the audience are helping the cause.'

These differing approaches beg the question of how effective they might be, or is this simply another manifestation of preaching to the converted. Shaun Nolan's Paper Dolls, which looks at unisex changing rooms, aligns with Thomas's approach. 'I think – I hope – that people leave the theatre questioning their beliefs. Paper Dolls doesn't end by demanding you align your beliefs with mine, it's just asking you to consider them as an option.'

Meanwhile, Jade Byrne's Pricks joins Burke's WEIRD in combining personal experience with tangible action: using Byrne's Type 1 diabetes to clarify the stereotypes around the condition and the importance of the NHS in coping with it, her post-show bucket collection fundraises for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

Of course there is still the question of whether political theatre can avoid the echo chamber pitfall or, as Burke puts it, 'is it a middle class pastime that allows us to tell ourselves we are making a difference?' Both Thomas and Burke are aware of that perception but remain optimistic; as the former points out, 'telling the story and getting the right story is going to be the way that you reach out from that bubble.'


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