The world stage

Theatre - Political drama should not only reflect reality but offer hope for change, argues Aleks Si

Political theatre has an image problem - it has become synonymous with worthiness, duty and smug complacency. Just look at docudrama - theatre's answer to reality TV.

This hasn't always been the case. The Tricycle Theatre in north London has a great record of tribunal plays. In 1999, The Colour of Justice, which dramatised the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, was not only a stage hit but also seen by almost 11 million people on TV. Now the same team - the journalist Richard Norton-Taylor and the director Nicolas Kent - have staged Justifying War: scenes from the Hutton inquiry. Once again, the Westminsterati can chortle at scenes showing the likes of Alastair Campbell and Geoff Hoon crouching under fire from James Dingemans QC. It's good to see theatre respond so quickly to events, but this can be self-defeating: the inquiry is still vivid in the public mind, and Hutton has not even delivered his verdict yet. You can't help feeling that the show appeals more to our civic duty than to our sense of fun - it is not the kind of play that will ever be revived.

Justifying War isn't the only docudrama to be staged this autumn. The Permanent Way, David Hare's account of the mess that followed the privatisation of the railways, has just begun its nationwide tour. Based on first-hand accounts by people at every level of the disaster, this promises to be a "provocative and challenging evening", though not necessarily a pleasurable one. Can the real-life words of railway managers and workers ever match the thrill of seeing the passionate tussle between Michael Gambon as the entrepreneur and Lia Williams as the teacher in Hare's 1995 drama Skylight? Or Judi Dench, all acid barbs and raw feelings, in his Amy's View?

There is a similar problem with Michael Frayn's Democracy, now at the National and acclaimed as the best new play of the year. Frayn explores the symbiotic relationship between Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany from 1969-74, and his personal assistant, Gunter Guillaume, an East German spy whose eventual unmasking led to Brandt's fall. But even if there is something satisfyingly familiar in the idea of a popular leader floundering in his second term of office after the removal of a trusted servant, this is an evening of intellectual pleasure rather than entertainment. The stage is packed with men in suits, plus their briefcases and files. Although wives and one-night-stands are central to the story, they don't make it on stage. Pure testosterone can result in emotionally deficient drama.

But if docudrama is a rather dry way of staging politics, at least more playwrights are tackling contemporary ideas. This was evident for the second year running at the Edinburgh Festival fringe, as theatre responded to the events of 11 September 2001. But young writers must take their obsession with naturalism and replace it with a combination of imaginative populism and radical ideas if political theatre is to be truly reinvigorated.

The trendsetters here are two Scottish writers, Gregory Burke and Henry Adam. Burke's The Straits (now at the Hampstead Theatre) is set in Gibraltar during the 1982 Falklands war, where the kids of British servicemen scrap with local "spics" and proudly declare: "War's what we do, innit. What we do best." Their bellicose assertion of national identity against an imaginary enemy feels chillingly apt in the light of the war in Iraq. Similarly, Adam's The People Next Door, a sizzling farce about a druggy dropout, Nigel, whose estranged brother Karim is suspected of being a Muslim terrorist, combines wild hilarity with serious ideas about terrorism. Both writers sharply question Britain's readiness to take on internal and external enemies.

Plays such as these mark a welcome shift from the Trainspotting tradition of the 1990s, when many playwrights simply described the plight of the disposses- sed without analysing the reasons behind it. As Tariq Ali's satire The Illustrious Corpse showed earlier this year, if you're going to deal with ideas, it's not enough to tell people what they already know. Reality moves so fast you always have to be at least two steps ahead.

One common cop-out is to say that all plays are political. A better way of defining a political play might be to insist that it should offer some hope of change. By this definition, docudramas - with their imagination-free content - fail. They merely reflect reality, when the point, surely, is to change it. Two superb dramas by black writers this year - Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen (National) and Roy Williams's Fallout (Royal Court) - both tackled the subject of violence and the black community with wit and insight but, depressingly, neither suggested any way of changing this reality. However powerful, both plays were more a cry of anger than a call for change.

A similar problem afflicts the National's Jerry Springer - The Opera, which has just transferred amid much jubilation to the West End. It's great to see a new musical that mixes filthy talk about chicks with dicks and a fat pole-dancer with music that alludes to the baroque era. And the mix of high and low culture certainly felt transgressive at the National. But in terms of its politics, this one-joke evening merely affirms, rather than challenges, our obsession with American trash culture.

Until recently, political drama was a sure way of emptying theatres. Today, as the rise of docudramas suggests, there is a hunger for ideas. Two powerful examples just opening in the West End are revivals of old plays. David Hare's The Secret Rapture (1988) and Stephen Poliakoff's Sweet Panic (1996) are masterclasses in showing not only how ideas influence behaviour, but also how humans cope with personal tragedy. Both plays put women centre stage, and both strongly argue that responsibility for change is where it should be: in our own hands.

Aleks Sierz is the author of In-Yer-Face Theatre (Faber & Faber)

Justifying War is at the Tricycle Theatre, London NW6 (020 7328 1000) until 6 December

Democracy is at the Cottesloe Theatre, London SE1 (020 7452 3000) until 30 December before transferring to the Lyttelton in the new year

The Straits is at the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3 (020 7722 9301) until 29 November

The Secret Rapture is at the Lyric Shaftesbury Avenue, London WC2 (020 7494 5045) until 21 February

Sweet Panic is at the Duke of York's Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1791) until 7 February

The Permanent Way is on nationwide tour until next year. Visit www.outofjoint.co.uk