Every day, we are presented with a knot of headlines warning of financial calamity, climate change and political corruption. Having recently been appointed as the artistic director of the Gate Theatre in London – a venue with a specific remit for internationalism – I have had to think hard about how the theatre can effectively reflect the impact that world-altering political events have on our lives. Yet any theatrical attempt to engage with the politics is usually dismissed with a series of common criticisms. The phrase “political theatre” may well sound dry and uninspiring. But the work it refers to can often, quite unfairly, get a bad rap.
The most frequent line of attack comes from those who argue that your average political play is doing little more than preaching to its converted lefty-liberal audience. It may be true that most theatre-makers are left-leaning, but any artist of worth knows that life’s complexities cannot be boiled down to partisan positioning.
Look, for instance, at the work of Lloyd Newson, artistic director of the remarkable dance theatre company DV8. His latest show – Can We Talk About This? – which ran recently at the National Theatre, sought to challenge the progressive idea that multiculturalism is an intrinsically good thing. This is not the first time that the National has tackled this subject. Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice did something similar. Bean’s play was accused, by some, of racism. This is to miss the point – it, like the DV8 show, took a forensic scalpel to some of the left’s prevailing attitudes about race and culture.
Another criticism often made is that political plays are rarely anything more sophisticated than dogmatic agitprop. We have all seen shows that feel, to the viewer, like newspaper columns transposed on to the stage. The Iraq war sparked a slew of such work. Some years ago, at the Edinburgh Festival I saw a piece by an American company that purported to be based on verbatim testimony from the wives of soldiers who had served in Iraq. It was simplistic, cloying and emotionally manipulative. The key problem with plays such as these is that they force the dramatic action and the individual characters to act as subservient ciphers for whichever particular axe the writer has to grind.
Yet, perhaps inevitably, Iraq has also spawned some of the greatest theatre you are ever likely to see. The National Theatre of Scotland’s now well-known production Black Watch told the story of the Scottish regiment’s deployment to the Middle East and its subsequent disbandment by Tony Blair’s government. While it is true that the play was clearly sceptical about the conflict, it was doing far more than simply saying “war is bad”. It was a complex, highly visual exploration of masculinity, tribalism and violence. And it can hardly be said that it pandered to simplistic leftist sentiments – the empathy it showed for this group of British squaddies hardly sits comfortably with the anti-militarist tendencies that are common among many progressives.
The final major criticism of political theatreis that it can never truly change anything. As the Guardian’s theatre critic Michael Billington concedes, it is “pointless to expect political theatre to topple governments or provoke legislation”. But that does not mean that it can’t have an important effect. Philip Ralph’s verbatim drama Deep Cut (for which I was the associate director when it went on national tour) played a vital role in reinvigorating the campaign to find out what happened to the four young soldiers that died at the Deepcut army barracks. Its initial success at the Edinburgh Festival sparked a wide-ranging discussion about training conditions for soldiers and government accountability. The show combined a compelling political argument with emotional intricacy.
So perhaps theatre’s real strength is that it can reshape the grammar of public discussion. Tom Stoppard once said that the great thing about dialogue is that it is “the most respectable way of contradicting” oneself. And in this way, theatre can provide a different language for debate from the journalist or the politician.
My first season at the Gate – entitled “Resist!” – attempts to do just this. It presents three shows that each have a very different take on the core theme of revolution. The first, Tenet, delights in the inherent absurdities and contradictions of its two key characters – the 19th-century French mathematician and revolutionary Évariste Galois and the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. The second, The Prophet, seeks to make sense of the chaotic early days of the Egyptian revolution; and the final play, Sunset Baby, looks back at the paradoxical legacy of the Black Power movement in the US. Each thrives on contradiction and ambiguity and will, I hope, demonstrate that theatre can be the ideal medium through which we try to understand the complicated and confusing world we inhabit.
“Tenet” begins at the Gate Theatre on 1 May. You can find out more about the Gate’s Resist! season here