We talk to the creators of shows based on real-life stories about the balance between factual retelling and using artistic licence to interpret the past.
The stage has long been the chosen medium for relaying acts of the past, but if the line between fact and fiction is unclear, it raises the question of whether theatre can ever truly represent history. And if it can't, then why do we keep going back to past events for on-stage content?
'I don't think that's the job of theatre. I think theatre is about ideas and feelings,' says Roberta Zuric, director of Incognito's The Burning, a new physical piece that follows women and witch hunters across time. 'We've been working with a historian and he's wonderful but, as historians are, he's a stickler for detail. That made it clear to us that our job is to give an interpretation that then opens discussion'.
Caitlin McEwan, writer and star of Poor Michelle's Bible John, based it on the unsolved 1960s Glasgow Barrowland murders but uses the production to consider the contemporary obsession with true crime. She agrees with Zuric that history in theatre doesn't need to be accurate. 'You can't present things exactly as they are: there's always the danger that things get heightened or fictionalised. I think it's a really interesting medium to play with artifice and reality.' So, is it about perspective rather than fact? 'It gives you perspective, gives you more of the heart of the thing and why we shouldn't forget it.'
The prolific playwright David Edgar, however, believes that theatre can be good at representing history. 'It goes in waves,' he muses. 'If you were to look back over theatre during the last 60 years you would find a pretty good record of cultural, political and social changes that have occurred and how people have responded to them.'
The Burning / credit: Marko Marsenic
Edgar's first ever solo show, Trying It On, consists of his 20-year-old self in the 1960s arguing with his 70-year-old self in 2018 about how the world, and himself, has changed. He points out that theatre exploring history wasn't fashionable when he was 20. 'I'm of a generation that believed that you should write plays set in the present. If that meant they had a sell-by-date then so be it. One way around that was plays in which the present and the past is confronted, plays in which the present investigates the past in some way.'
This trend of using history to examine the present isn't new, but there's a sense that in our current turbulent times, people are looking back more than ever. Zuric explains that The Burning is doing just that, 'Witch hunts spiked in Europe at moments of great change … we're asking, "are we again at a big point of change and turmoil?"
She hopes that she can show history in a new light to provide an answer to why witch hunts happened in the first place, 'I want people to understand that a lot of these big events came from basic human emotions of fear and anxiety.' Essentially, we must realise that anyone has the potential to have been the bad guy in history. 'We think "well they all just didn't know what they were doing", when actually they are a lot closer to us because we still operate from being emotional beings'.
Bible John similarly uses the past to confront the present and explores the popular genre of true crime and its uncanny ability to resonate. 'They are just women who went on a night out and didn't come home, I think there's nothing really in place to stop that happening again. It looks at that with a modern lens and questions whether it could', McEwan explains.
The current cultural obsession with true crime tells us that storytelling based on real-life events captivates audiences. But when the stories in this genre rarely have resolutions, and the majority feature violence against women, why are they so enthralled? 'The self-protection thing is really big,' says McEwan. 'The fact they have all the elements of traditionally good stories like intrigue, high stakes and evidence, and I think people are attracted by the psychological aspect of understanding why someone would do something like that.'
Trying It On / credit: Arnim Friess
But for McEwan, her story isn't really about that, it's about opening up these histories and taking the spotlight off the perpetrators and on to the often faceless victims. 'Centring the victims is the most important part of the play for me and if nothing else is remembered, if they know these women's names, that will be the main thing.'
In Trying It On, the history Edgar mediates on is the events of his youth – the Vietnam War, Martin Luther King Jr and sex, drugs and rock'n'roll – with the added perspectives of well-known activists and figures of his generation like Tariq Ali, Anna Coote and Hilary Wainwright. He believes this type of solo show would have been hard to do 10 years ago, 'because all kinds of things have happened since then that brings back the feel of the 1960s.'
'I think people are clearly looking back with the rise of the populist right, people are looking back to the 30s, and what happened in Europe,' he continues, 'but they're also looking back to what happened in the 60s and 70s'. By exploring his younger and older selves through time, he reveals the various ways in which his life has bumped into history along the way. 'I think it's quite important to understand how history impacts on you and I think that is particularly true of the moment, because God knows whatever happens in the current political moment, all of our lives are going to change, and our personal lives are going to be impacted by the histories of which we are living.'
So, while theatre may never truly represent history as it happens in textbooks, the current political, social and cultural climate makes it a breeding ground for historical-based theatrical pieces. The juxtaposition of yesterday and today in theatre can reveal a lot about tomorrow, and might just be capturing the zeitgeist that defines our times.
The Burning, Pleasance Courtyard, 3–26 Aug (not 13), 3.15pm, £12–£13 (£11–£12). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £7.
Warwick Arts Centre and China Plate It’s 1968, the height of the worldwide student revolt. David is 20. The Vietnam War rages. Martin Luther King is assassinated. These events will define David's politics, his writing and his life. 50 years on, in his professional performing debut, David is confronted by his 20-year-old…