Column: Left stage

Anyone watching parliament over the past few months could be forgiven for thinking it was the standout UK venue for political theatre. Throughout the autumn season, we’ve been treated to classic farce, jokers holding court, grandstanding monologues, comedies of errors and backbench chorusing befitting of Greek tragedy – or perhaps better suited to pantomime, with its habitual elicitations of hisses and boos.

At the centre of it all: a true ham, handed the lead based not on the strength of past performances but his own conviction that ‘PM’ is the role he was born to play. We may hope for the curtain to come down on the Johnson government but the show threatens to go on. A sequel looms to the smash-hit morality play Referendum! We might even get a trilogy.

The political theatre featured in this issue’s culture section is taking place far from Westminster, in women’s prisons, gyms and tin works, Cape Town workshops and a Ukrainian cultural centre. Our contributors present different visions of how ‘the political’ informs their work in a variety of forums and genres. All attest to the power of theatrical processes, and of active engagement with and in performance, to profoundly shape people’s ideas about society, (in)justice and identity. Theatre can also remind us of the power we each possess as players on the world’s stage.

As Claire Cunningham notes (page 48), such power and influence can – and should – also be entertaining. Theatre is to be enjoyed, not endured, and expectations challenged can involve a serenade from an Elvis impersonator as much as a radical retelling of Shakespeare. Much like parliamentary politics, however, it remains hard to shake impressions that theatre is made by and for elites. As in politics, successful challenges to that elitism have to take aim at multiple levels, including access, representation and stories told.

The issue of who is making theatre – and who feels inclined and is able to see it – remains fraught with financial and other barriers. Despite its pledge to shift funding from London to the regions, a third of the 2018-22 Arts Council England budget will be spent in the capital. According to the County Councils Network, local authority annual spending on arts and culture has been stripped back by almost £400m since 2010. Companies such as Common Wealth (page 44) are innovating in testing times.

In terms of increased representation on stage, there are some dubious causes for celebration. Last year, Nine Night became the first West End play written by a black British woman. The playwright, Natasha Gordon, reflected at the time: ‘How can I celebrate that in 2018? What does that do towards moving us forward and opening the ground for the younger generation?’ Speaking to the Guardian, Gordon highlighted the political context behind her ‘accolade’: ‘So many black playwrights, black theatre groups, companies existed in the ’80s but closed due to a lack of support.’

For writer Aisha Rimi, Nine Night  stands at the forefront of a black British theatre renaissance. Inua Ellams’ retelling of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which transfers the action to Nigeria on the cusp of the 1967 Biafran civil war and opens at the National Theatre in December, supports Rimi’s view. It is due to tour and be beamed into cinemas worldwide via the NT Live series. Our focus on theatre comes at an important time: politicians are selling us red herrings and audiences risk falling asleep during the most important bit. Good political theatre can stir us into action – and demands our support.

Citation: S. McGuirk (2019) “Left stage” Red Pepper Issue 226 (Winter 2019), p.43.

Published on the eve of the UK General Election 2019, Red Pepper Issue 226 explores British constitutional dilemmas and transatlantic leftist ties. The culture section focuses on the power of theatre as a tool for political commentary, therapy, and for imagining radical social change. This column introduced the section.