Everything is politics
In the age of chaos, political theatre is more than just the party line, argues Gareth K Vile
This article is from 2016.
'My stuff has often been described as political, and that's probably true,' admits Kieran Hurley. 'But so is everything else, all the time, always.' Having had Fringe successes with Beats, a reflection on the social impact of rave music, and Chalk Farm, which dissected the London riots, Hurley's work has maintained a lively interest in current affairs. Even as he acknowledges that his latest piece Heads Up is 'angry, more hurt, more difficult', he makes the salient point that political theatre is not merely a matter of presenting a topical subject.
Immediacy has been used to justify theatre's social importance, and its very 'liveness' lends it a shared dimension. While television and the internet play to isolated viewers, a theatre audience becomes a community, forced to engage not only with the art but each other. This communal aspect emphasises the political power of performance, rendering even unlikely topics potent.
The lives of West Ham football fans, for example, are brought to the stage in Irons. Writer Colin Chaston used his experiences as a supporter to consider community and, surprisingly, transgender identity. 'When West Ham scored, I witnessed people of all races and genders coming together in celebration, all hugging, kissing, singing and dancing together, totally unconcerned with the labels we usually stick on people. I thought "wow!"'
From this, he developed a story that follows three fans, one of whom is transitioning. 'I like audiences to feel challenged but absolutely refuse to lecture,' Chaston continues. While there is a serious issue in the play, he is sharing another, less obvious journey. 'I want them to experience the highs and lows and fun of following a football team, and the East End humour.'
Apart from the advantage of featuring Britain's most popular past-time, Chaston is recognising a politics that is based not in the agenda of the moribund parties but the daily interactions of people. Politics, in terms of relationships of power, is rescued from the increasingly distant rhetoric of government and opposition.
The rise of intersectionality and identity marked a major shift away from the traditional political concerns of finance and labour. In The Princes' Quest, Henry Winlow uses questions of identity, and the arguably gay-friendly genre of the musical to poke at the hidden subtexts of fairytales.
'The show was first inspired by a fake news article about an upcoming Disney movie about two princes who go on a quest for a princess but fall in love with each other,' he explains. 'We moved away from the fantasy world and grounded the show in a modern-day setting. Our main aim was to create an LGBT fairytale that is so rarely told.'
This subversion of traditional narratives represents theatre's ability to engage with the myths that define daily life and, like Irons, is a complex response to an issue that is frequently turned into an abstract, if emotive, set of arguments on social media. The witty playfulness of the musical moves the discussion beyond bland opinion into a more nuanced and thought-provoking meditation.
That isn't to say that there isn't a place for more direct statements. 'I wanted to make something that was about how it feels to live in a world that is built on catastrophe,' says Hurley. 'I was aware of the world feeling more and more like a constant cavalcade of crisis.' This anxiety is matched by Hurley's DIY ethos in the production, and echoes the thoughts of director Keti Dolidze, who is adapting Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire as a clash between urban immigrants and rural romanticism.
'The more we live in this cruel society the more dreaming becomes essential for every human being,' he observes. 'A Streetcar Named Desire is a story not about the lunacy of a lone woman, but of her trying to save the world from its brutality.' This re-imagining of a familiar script is not only theatrically ingenious, but it draws out the implicit politics of Williams, a writer forced to hide his desires in a more socially conservative era.
This is evident even in less realistic productions: Skrimshanks appears to be a clown double act, but Flabbergast Theatre are using 'the role of the fool to make us question how we live our lives.' And Alexander Kelly of Third Angel hopes that his show, 600 People will make audiences 'feel differently about their place in the galaxy' after sharing his journey of astronomical discovery.
Between these productions – and the Fringe offers the chance to experience such diverse approaches to the big questions of human experience – political theatre can be seen as anything that challenges assumptions or looks to the wider world for inspiration, in the hope of encouraging change.
Hurley concludes by recognising that this present moment is already dramatic. 'I think it feels like we're living in times of great change, like the end of something big, be it this particular stage of capitalism, or old certainties around nationhood and social structures.' If the times are unstable, theatre can suggest alternatives.
Heads Up, Summerhall, 6–28 Aug (not 15, 22), 7.05pm, £11 (£10). Previews 3, 5 Aug, £8.
Irons, Greenside @ Infirmary Street, 5–27 Aug (not 14, 21), times vary, £10 (£9).
The Princes' Quest, C cubed, 4–20 Aug, 7.20pm, £7.50--£9.50 (£5.50--£7.50).
A Streetcar Named Desire, Assembly Roxy, 6–29 Aug (not 10, 15, 22), 1.55pm, £8–10. Preview 4 & 5 Aug, £7.
Skrimshanks, Assembly George Square Theatre, 6–28 Aug (not 16, 22), 10.30pm, £10–12. Previews 3–5 Aug, £6.
600 People, Northern Stage at Summerhall, Aug 18–27 (not 24), 2.45pm, £11 (£9).