World service

Theatre - Dominic Dromgoole on how drama brings us the news that other media shirk from reporting

The recent arrival of the Al-Kasaba troupe at London's Royal Court, with their front-line reports in Alive From Palestine, has reawakened theatre's perennial debate about the extent to which it has been, is, could be or should be, political. Political theatre has not fared well of late. It has, over the past few years, acquired all the style of chintz curtains, the charisma of a scout master and the intellectual independence of the Catholic Church. Several practitioners, including myself, have done what they could over the past decade to extinguish the plodding, argument-based, victim-obsessed, sanctimonious bilge that used to clog up our stages and drive away audiences.

It's a great relief that most of this has passed the way of the test card. Partly, this was a simple question of aesthetics - bad writers were piggybacking their way to prominence on the back of issues, leaving more talented writers in the shade. And it derived also from the smug and misguided security drawn from Francis Fukuyama's End of History thesis, which assumed that dull managers were going to extend the economic boom of the 1990s through into a never-ending future, so we could all forget about politics and concentrate on other matters. On the aesthetics we performed an important service, on the politics we were dumb.

Our parish is no longer just the country we live in - if it were, we'd die of boredom - it is the world. As broadcast so lucidly by Naomi Klein, Eric Schlosser et al, our interconnectedness now goes way beyond the neighbourhood. Whether we like it or not, the rivets on our jeans and the bits of burger we pick out of our teeth bind us together with Indonesian girls sleeping six to a dormitory, and many a falling tree. This is the new community, the new relevance, the new currency. Theatre's value is measurable only by how it speaks to each new community.

But how? I recently attended a conference on political theatre in Newcastle, as a panellist. When asked about the future of political theatre, I roughly sketched out something I'd been thinking about on the train. It's been solidifying ever since. I believe the heart of theatre's political strength lies in its importance as the last true news service.

There's a terrible confusion between theatre as journalism and theatre as true news. Journalism rehashes what we already know in coloured lights, and with fleshed-out figures. It reveals the revealed. Theatre as true news is something different. It uncovers facts we have not yet heard or seen. It exposes what is hidden. It gives a voice to what has hitherto been unspoken. Often in image, often in silence, often in a lie, and in that deliberate act of clouding, it leaves us to our own understanding.

There has been too much journalism of late, too much hectoring shallowness. But the opposite, theatre as true news, was very much the case with the recent Sarah Kane season at the Royal Court. It was fascinating to revisit Kane's work in the light of what we now know. When Blasted was first staged in January 1995, its tales of brutality, degradation and mass slaughter seemed to many to be the lurid imaginings of an excessively morbid sensibility. How wrong we were. There was Kane, scouring the internet, reading Amnesty and UN reports, picking up what she could from underground publications, compiling a truth that many, including me, laughed away. She came back to it with Cleansed in 1998, yet still her truth was refused.

Now that we know what occurred at Srebrenica, all over Bosnia, and later in Kosovo, Kane's work seems like the most alarming and artful reportage. Why didn't we know then? We simply weren't told properly. Newspapers and television failed us hopelessly. But how could newspapers or TV compete with theatre's truth? When, in Cleansed, Kane described the ancient Balkan technique of inserting a billiard cue into the anus and delicately pushing it up through the body so that it emerges by the collarbone without damaging any internal organs along the way, she achieved a purity of horror, and a directness of truth, that could never be approached in other media. Television simply won't admit such honesty. Newspapers have no idea how to frame it. A figure, alive on the stage, making a truth clear and unmediated, can do a job that these other media cannot.

No one has known this longer than the great bear into whose embrace Kane curled (and, in doing so, gave him new life) - Harold Pinter. He has for a long time been observing the swirl of violence and potential threat beneath everyday life, bringing news of the tectonic shifts between classes and sexes. More recently, he has addressed a sense of international politics in a series of fragments. He keeps his ear to the ground, and hears the rumblings. He reports them with a sculptural accuracy that other media - which lack the courage to mention such incidents in the first place - can only envy.

But theatre has spoken of more than just Bosnia. The Bloody Sunday inquiry is under way, and eventually will deliver the truth that everyone knows already. It will be trumpeted on the TV and in the papers, as breaking news, that 30 years ago a group of gung-ho officers and football hooligan privates with guns murdered a collection of innocent protesters. And all with the tacit approval of their political masters. The amount of plays that have broadcast these events over the intervening decades could fill a municipal library.

Facts, occurrences and events are only a small section of the beat theatre covers. More politically acute are the revelations of the way society is moving, and how individuals are being shaped within that society. Again, this is not a matter of journalism. Shakespeare never reported on the latest shocking pensions scandal. He performed a far more pivotal job by showing the human being new-minting himself, startling in his soul, his appetites, his individuality, his ambition. Chekhov showed a culture lost within its own culture, and feeble before the onslaught of modernism. Noel Coward (yes, even him) brought a new world on to the stage, peopled with uncertain, dizzy, lost souls, all pre-war certainty gone. These writers endured because they displayed the new human that each generation throws up.

The sense of the new human is conveyed overwhelmingly towards the end of the first act of Jonathan Harvey's latest play, Out in the Open, which has recently finished a carnival of a run at London's Hampstead Theatre. On a bright Sunday morning, with breakfast being barbecued, we saw on stage a 70-year-old pub landlady, her tits swaying round her ankles, off her head on Ecstasy, having spent the night at a gay club with her dope-smoking 50-year-old best mate, equally off her head, and a black lesbian failed actress who lives in a fantasy world and speaks in fluent "Richard & Judy". Beside these three gothic figures were three relatively dull gay men. They take drugs, they talk bollocks, they practically combust.

Aside from being hysterically funny, and beautifully true, this was news, this was modern living at its most degenerate and advanced, the way the west is heading in its most gory manifestation. Harvey shows us the lurid day-glo madness, the diversity gone bananas, that pertains in our Cricklewoods and our Surbitons. If you wanted to see life on the edge of the modern, drawing weird arrows towards the future, then this was the play.

This is, I think, where theatre retains its unique political purpose. Whether reporting on an atrocity, revealing a new way of thinking, or describing a new pattern of feeling, theatre has a unique capacity to deliver the news. It is a live news service, a life news service.

Dominic Dromgoole is artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company